Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Boss of the Day, With Bonus Quote

I was recently made aware of this brilliant 3-part series by John Oliver, as many of the Daily Show's segments are. John Oliver, boss of the day, for making the point so spectacularly in short clips of awesome-sauce.

It's great, even more so for giving us this excellent example of American Exceptionalism:

John Oliver: What if, hypothetically speaking, what if gun control could work? Which obviously it can't, so, we know that it wont, so that's not a problem, but what if it could, due to that time that it did?

Philip Van Cleave: Okay, when was that?

John Oliver: Australia

Philip Van Cleave: I guess if we're going to go to planet X, and say it's not the United States, it's some, some other planet with different people different everything, I don't know, yea, I don't know, it, it, but in the real world, with real human beings it's not going to work and we, gun control is not going to work.

Emphasis mine

Are you fucking serious? Please, please tell me they took that quote out of context. And yet, it doesn't surprise me either. America is the world. Australia? That's planet X, with aliens, not real human beings. 

Extra Extra Bonus: Australian comedian also making the comparison between US and Aussie gun control, where I actually heard about this first, and also very funny

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

When a Negative Statement Becomes A Claim

The other day I got into a bit of a strange discussion with my colleagues, which involved me being alone on my side of the debate defending the existence of male bisexuality.

It all started with the observation that our culture is far more accepting of a fluid sexuality for women, as it is less acceptable for a man to admit to having had the occasional male partner but still claiming to prefer women. While initially the people I was speaking to decried this double standard as unfair, at the end they still claimed that they also thought that any man who has had male partners, or wanted to have male partners is probably actually gay, and that the Kinsey Scale is probably only applicable to women. I disagreed. There are plenty of men, some of whom I know personally who claim to be bisexual, on what basis can they claim that in reality male bisexuality doesn't exist? Personal experience is not science! I was told. That is not evidence! Who am I to say that it does exists? I have just as much justification to claim it does as they do to claim that it doesn't. 

The details of our discussion are not that important to what I want to talk about here. The point is that this whole thing got me thinking about positive versus negative claims, and how sometimes making a negative claim is actually the one requiring a larger burden of proof.

The burden of proof lies on those who make the claim. This is a very common statement used to explain atheism, and why the absence of evidence leads one to assume the negative. There is no evidence that fairies exist, therefore I do not believe they exist. Same goes for unicorns, or dragons. I cannot prove that they don't exist, it is impossible to prove a negative, but I am not going to believe in them until I have good reason to do so. What is more, personal accounts of having seen a fairy or unicorn or dragon (or, for that matter, God) does not count as evidence in the slightest. Given this logic, I am the one with the burden of proof, no? I am the one claiming that male bisexuality exists. They are claiming it does not. Shouldn't I be the one who has the burden of proof in this case?

Their claim that male bisexuality does not exist struck me as a much bolder statement than my claim that it does, and then I realized why.

The fact of the matter is, when it comes to something as personal as sexual attraction, personal statements do count as evidence. With something as complex as human behavior, there is very little in the way of objective evidence that one can collect, akin to something like finding an actual fairy. That doesn't mean that one cannot attempt to design experiments which attempt to collect more objective evidence in order to verify these claims, but in this case the claims themselves do hold significant weight.

Imagine for a moment the more extreme version of this argument. There is no such thing as gay people! People who engage in gay sex are just abusers! Or people who have been abused! Or people who just want to engage in extreme sex! That seems like a very bold statement, no? It seems as though someone who believes that would have to do far more legwork than someone who believes that gay people exist in order to prove their point, even though they're stating the negative.

In this scenario, it's not that any of these people would need to prove that male bisexuality, or homosexuality doesn't exist. This encounters the same problems as trying to prove that fairies don't exist. However, what they would have to do is start by finding a plausible, evidence-backed alternative to explain all of those people who do identify as gay, or bisexual, or whatever. They need to do a lot more legwork to bring the conversation back to an even 50:50, maybe it exists and maybe it doesn't, equal evidence on both sides. Without finding evidence that there is an alternative explanation for all of those people, it is actually far more reasonable to assume that male bisexuality does in fact exist, in lieu of further evidence.

Do you see where I'm coming from? Any thoughts?

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

That's Not Real.... Is That Real?!

I came across this video on Pharyngula as I was eating lunch at my desk. According to PZ, this is a real, genuine political ad for Rand Paul, but I cannot bring myself to believe it.

I almost choked on my sandwich. I have no words to describe my reaction, the closest I can come is 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Back to Sporadic Updates...

Hey All,

Aren't I just a horrible flake? It looks like I'm back to sporadic updating of this thing. Just when I thought there was a bit of a lull in my workload, I got a whole other pile of crap to do dumped on me. Back to 14 hour work days for the foreseeable future! Woop!

At this point, this song is playing non-stop in my head

Saturday, May 30, 2015

That. Was. Epic.

I loved Bill Nye the Science Guy when I was a kid. He's engaging, funny and just plain fun. Turns out, he can be funny to adult audiences too, and this skit was just perfect.

Bill Nye the Science Guy, always a boss. 

Friday, May 29, 2015

On How Awesome Gecko Feet Are

When my colleagues are not totally sick of hearing me talk, we have an occasional segment in the office known as "this week in Zoology". I work with people who have a background predominantly in Neuroscience, Molecular Biology and Genetics, whereas I got my degree in Zoology. Given this, I know quite a few random and awesome facts about animals, permanently stored in my brain, so I figured why not repeat a few of them here? The very first thing we talked about was the fractal feet of geckos.

Lets start with talking about what a fractal actually is. A fractal is a mathematical concept which is often observed in nature, in which a pattern is maintained at every scale of resolution. This can be seen in branching of biological structures, in which one branch has many branches, each of which has many branches, each of those having other branches etc. This is how gecko feet are structured, which is the secret to their success with climbing virtually any kind of surface.

A snarky way to learn about fractals

Researchers noticed that, among creatures who could crawl on vertical surfaces, geckos are pretty much the best at it. Trying to pull a gecko off the wall can result in ripping its legs from its body, rather than removing the whole animal. So, how do they manage to stick to a surface so well, and at the same time crawl over it so rapidly? Is it suction cups? Electricity? Attempting to coat the surface with oils, changing the materials or passing electrical currents through them led to no changes in the gecko's ability to climb. Finally, they looked at the gecko's toes, and therein was the answer.


It turns out, a gecko's toes are structured like a fractal, they are branched into smaller and smaller structures, until ultimately they can squeeze between the molecules of the surface, taking advantage of the molecule-to-molecule interactions of the surface in order to stick to them.

How amazingly cool is that??!! They are actually penetrating the molecular structure of your wall!

Any random animals you don't think can be cool? Name them in the comments and lets see if I can scare up any ancient memories of weird facts about them!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Respecting Your Parents, But As Equals

My father is coming to visit me tomorrow, kind of spur of the moment. Woop! Given that he lives half way around the world I only get to see him once a year, and even then usually just for a couple of days, so I'm happy he's coming to visit, to see my new place and to just hang out for a bit.

I have not spoken about my father much on this blog, and that is primarily because we do not have any real conflict, especially compared with the tension I have with my mother. However, given his upcoming visit, it reminds me of a weird moment I had when I was visiting my mother's side of the family in the States, and highlighted a deep seeded cultural difference that may go a long way to explain why I clash so badly with my mother. 

So I was sitting in the living room with my uncle, my cousin and her boyfriend. It was a little awkward, we don't really have so much to say to each other, but my uncle used to be really good friends with my father and is always curious to hear what he's up to. Given that my father now lives in Brazil, he was kicking it under the sun while I'm freezing my butt off in December in Seattle. He teases me by sending me the occasional picture of gorgeous palm trees, beaches and crystal blue sea while I'm curled up on the couch inside. So I say to my uncle "hey, look where my dad is now! He just sent me this picture. What a dick! I'm so jealous". My uncle's reaction was one that I would have never anticipated. His face dropped, he gave an awkward laugh, turned to his daughter and said "[daughter], don't you ever ever call me a dick. No matter how much time passes or how far away we are from each other, I hope we don't ever reach a point in which you think you can disrespect me and call me a dick". She looked terrified at the mere thought of it. "No dad, I would never do such a thing, no way". 

She's 20, by the way.

Well, that lighthearted conversation-starter just got hella intense. I was not trying to disrespect my father, far from it. I tried to explain it, saying that if anyone sends you a picture from a remote gorgeous sunny place while you're freezing and wishing you were there, don't you call them a dick? Like teasing? He dismissed it, saying "I know you have a weird relationship with your father, but I would never tolerate something like that". 

This is where I realized that, as much as I love my US family, we just cannot see eye to eye about basic human interaction. 

I'm 28 years old. As such my father has, for quite a few years now, treated me like an adult, like an equal. He will tell me about the drugs he took, a dirty joke he heard, or a funny embarrassing situation he got himself in. We are adults, and we are equals. The idea that my uncle will forever hang on to this parental reverence, this respect me because I'm your father no matter what or else, that my cousin will forever fear calling him out on anything because respect, is heartbreaking to me. When I repeated this story to my Italian grandmother, who is 92, she was just as ready to call my dad a dick for sending me that picture and just as puzzled at my uncle's reaction.

I was raised by an Italian family which believes that parental respect is earned in adulthood. One that has never uttered "do this because I said so" to a child, because children need to understand why certain actions are wrong, not just blindly follow authority. My mother, clearly, was raised in a completely different culture, which is probably why she had so many problems battling with me as a child, and why we still clash to this day. 

Yes, I called my dad a dick, and I wouldn't trade the relationship I have with him for anything, especially not for the one my uncle has with my cousin. The fact that I can talk to him like a person, like a peer, is infinitely more valuable to me than forcing myself into a paradigm in which I am expected to revere a paternal figure which is obviously just a fallible, flawed human like everyone else. Being forced to ultimately respect someone without question because blood, because family, because parent, to me is something that is putting a heavy strain on their relationship.

And for my relationship to be called weird, given that alternative? Fine, I'll take weird over normal any day. In the meantime, I plan on having a bitchin time with my dad this weekend!

Hey Guys! I'm Not Dead!

Hello again,

Of course it happens that, just when I think I have found the time to keep this blog up to date, life happens. Science is crazy work: there are some weeks when you're thinking "what am I doing here? Why do I have nothing to do? This is odd..." and then, the world explodes. I found myself buried under such a workload these last couple of months, but I amazingly found time to go to the International Atheist Conference in Cologne last weekend. 

Thanks to PZ Myers (whom I managed to nervously meet there and have a brief chat with) I had an unbelievable time. It was, in short, AWESOME.

I'd like to blog a bit about the various talks, but I am also anxiously awaiting the videos of them to come out. I might talk a bit about them before, and can always add in the videos of the talks later (if they are made publicly available, but I assume they are), but I'll see what I can do. In the meantime, let me just say that I am so happy I decided to take the chance and go to the conference on my own.

I have also decided to become an individual member of Atheist Alliance International. They really do amazing work, they operate on volunteers, and $30 a year is really nothing given all the good they do. I really suggest you all check it out and see for yourselves.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Dammit! I'm A Day Late

Despite the fact that this was yesterday, it was such an overload of dorky science love I just can't get over it and I just had to post it, despite my tardiness.
I fucking love science's photo.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Let The Cultural Differences Commence!

Another country, another opportunity to spot the cultural differences that make life so interesting.
When I moved to Germany, I noticed that this was a place in which caution was very much in the common culture. Germans have insurance for things that would never even cross my mind. When discussing these issues, people would ask me things like "well, if you are walking down the street and you pick up a piece of wood that someone was throwing away and the pile of wood falls on you, then who is responsible? Which insurance pays?" Um... if a pile of wood fall on you cause you were messing with it, that gets filed under sad day for you? No? Does this filing chapter not exist here? OK.
This observation came into conflict with a reaction to something that happened in the institute. There was an accident, which resulted in a certain amount of a volatile toxic chemical to be released into the air. The lab and the labs surrounding it were evacuated and the situation was assessed. While the room in which the accident happened was determined to be too contaminated to use, the room immediately next to it, which connects to the contaminated room through a normal door, was not determined to be unsafe for use. I needed to do something in that adjoining room, but I decided to wear a mask in there anyway, just in case. My Mediterranean colleagues, though not known for their extreme caution, fully supported this decision. When I was walking there with my mask on, however, a German colleague said to me "why are you wearing a mask? You don't need one in there, they said it was safe".
What?! These super cautious people are now the ones telling me there is no need to be cautious? What is going on here? Then it hit me.
Germans trust authority far, far more than Italians or other Mediterranean people do. They assume that, if something is determined to be safe, it is because people who know what they're doing thoroughly checked the situation and made this determination accurately. If in Italy something dangerous happened in a lab and then someone came out and was like "No problem! You can come back in everything's fine!" We'd all be like 

Yea right! We're going home. For the rest of the week.

Our people just don't trust people in authority with anything. Many would say with good reason, but it is the one time that you will find an Italian who is more cautious than a German. 

Oh sweet irony, how you make life fun!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Who Is Responsible For Words, Over Actions?

When it comes to criticizing Islamic beliefs and trying to pin down how much blame to put on the words of the Qu'ran that terrorists claim to be killing in the name of, I often find myself wavering between different viewpoints. While I very much disagree with Sam Harris and what is, in my opinion, his rather pigheaded way to approach the issue, I'm also not on the wishy-washy liberal "religion of peace" apologetics that you often hear on the other side. I definitely agree that the reasons behind terrorism are complex, multifactorial and not as simple as just pointing to a holy book and saying there! Problem solved.

The reason I bring this up is because I constantly think about this issue as it is brought up. The most recent episode of the Non-Prophets did just that when discussing the reasoning behind the Chapel Hill shooting, where an atheist shot and killed three Muslim neighbors of his, although whether "in the name of atheism" or not still remains to be determined. The hosts bring up the fact that there is no atheist dogma, and thus there is nothing inherently "in" atheism which permits, condones or encourages violent actions against others, unlike most monotheistic religious texts. This I totally agree with, but then the discussion went one step further. Russell talked about how he went to a seminar on Islam in Austin, and how while he thought their beliefs were weird, he did not feel like it was in any way reasonable to hold them responsible for the Charlie Hebdo shootings, any more than it is to hold atheists responsible for the recent shooting in North Carolina. To this Jeff hesitated, saying he didn't feel the same way, because of what was said before: Muslims have a holy book which contains violence, and atheists don't.

While he did not say it in so many words, he sort of implied a shared responsibility of Muslims towards what is written in their holy texts, if not for the individual actions of the religious followers themselves. While it is obviously not any of the Muslims alive today who are responsible for writing them, a question could be raised as to how much responsibility you have for what is written in the text that you claim to believe is the word of god.

This idea that Muslims are somewhat responsible for what their religion says is something that is also very prevalent in the right wing. This huffing and puffing about every single Muslim individual and group in American having to openly and publicly denounce every single terrorist act committed anywhere in the world before they are allowed to speak a single word in public (which many of them do, despite the fact that, in my opinion, its not their responsibility) is something seen often on Fox and the like. This got me thinking, at what point are you responsible for the words of others? They claim to believe that this text is the word of god, that is true, but there is no picking and choosing with holy books. You have to either take the whole thing or nothing. The right wing would never take responsibility for every word of the Bible (I doubt many of them believe that cotton-polyester blends are an abomination), and yet they do place a good deal of responsibility of what is written in the Qu'ran at the feet of Muslims. My question is, how fair is it to claim that someone who has not written a text has responsibility for what it says and, by extension, what others do with those words?

And, for consistency's sake, how fair is it to lay responsibility down at the feet of a person who actually did write the words in question?

Ladies and Gents, remember Bill O'Reilly?

So Bill was famously in the middle of a little controversy (and now finds himself in the middle of a larger one, but one thing at a time) involving his coverage of an abortion provider named Dr. George Tiller. O'Reilly repeatedly referred to Dr. Tiller as "Tiller the Baby Killer", along with dehumanizing him in many different ways. Once Dr. Tiller was murdered O'Reilly, never one to back down, defended his use of the term and his campaign against this man.

I despise Bill O'Reilly, so any opinion of mine on his share of the responsibility for Dr. Tiller's murder would be tainted. However, what I am asking for is consistency. 

If you think that someone who didn't write the words in their text, but simply believes in its holiness, should share some responsibility for others' actions in the name of that text, then you definitely, definitely have to think that O'Reilly, who actually composed these words, shares responsibility for what was done to Dr. Tiller. 

By the way: I in no way am comparing Jeff from the Non Prophets to Republicans, or in any way suggesting that he believes that Muslims share responsibility for the actions of terrorists. He was simply the spark that ignited this train of thought.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Tough Questions: On Shaming Your Kids

A couple weeks back, a discussion came up on TYT that got me all conflicted, as it sometimes does. I've realized that when you agree with some people 95% of the time, that only makes the 5% you disagree on feel more jarring. This case had to do with parenting, and whether or not it is a viable parenting strategy to shame your kids.

Jimmy Dore and Karamo Brown - a new occasional co-host on TYT, disagree quite strongly on whether or not subjecting your child to public humiliation is a good parenting strategy. Viscerally, I disagreed with Karamo Brown, but I wasn't quite sure why. There were other instances of publicly humiliating kids that had been covered by TYT which I did agree was a good strategy, despite the fact that Ana often comes out 100% against it. In this case, however, I found myself siding with Jimmy Dore, although it took a while for me to wrap my head around why that was.

It all clicked when I was watching an old episode of the Atheist Experience. Discipline and parenting had come up, and Matt Dillahunty had a very interesting perspective on the different ways to parent. Paraphrasing, he came up with two scenarios involving kids who misbehave in a restaurant. In one scenario, you tell the child that if they misbehave they will be grounded, if they behave they get an ice cream. In the other scenario, you teach the child why it is rude to misbehave in a restaurant, you teach them to empathize with the other patrons, asking them how would you feel if someone was disrupting your favorite pastime? In the short run you probably get the same result: a child which behaves in the restaurant. However, in the long run, the child who understands the reasons behind their behavior are more likely to be empathetic, and are less likely to misbehave if, for instance, the person doling out the punishments or rewards is not present the next time they go out. It is parenting through instruction, rather than through fear, which I have always been in favor of. Now of course this is a simplistic example necessary to illustrate the point, and all parenting is a combination of instruction and punishment/reward, but I have always found myself in favor of erring on the side of instruction. I have also found myself using this example to illustrate why hitting your kids is not an effective strategy, just replace "grounded" with "smack in the face" or, as per this video, "old man haircut".

Another layer to it is that I have noticed, in my working with children (despite not having any of my own as of now), that (especially when they are quite young) the more delayed the consequence, the less likely it's going to work. When they're getting picked on in school and bullied and laughed at they're not going to remember that it was because they talked back to their mother or they misbehaved in a restaurant, they're going to know that they're feeling miserable right now and their parents put them there. That might inspire fear of crossing their parents (and hey, some parents think that's a good thing for some reason), or it might harbor resentment for them, but it is often not an effective way for them to connect their current misery as a consequence of a previous transgression.

So give all of this, why was I conflicted at all? It seems as though I pretty much come out against publicly shaming your kids. Why the need to ponder it?

Well, because there have been some cases of public shaming of children when I came out firmly on the side of the parents. However, after going through the previous scenario I understood why.

All of the times I have favored shaming kids, the kids were 1. teenagers, and 2. bullies.

I realized that the reason I felt it was good to shame these kids, was because the shaming was the lesson in empathy. They were kids who routinely laughed at their peers, put them down online or bullied others in one way or another. Knowing what it feels like to be the target of that kind of abuse is something that can teach them to empathize with others.

It wasn't a delayed punishment meant to create misery for a previous transgression, it was the learning experience.

To be fair to Karamo Brown, he did couch his example of shaming his own child in a lot of sitting down, explaining and teaching language, which I am sure contributed to my feeling conflicted, and which is why I didn't really disagree with him as strongly as I might have in a different context. It wasn't until some time later, when he came on TYT again and made some very sex-negative comments, to the effect of 'well, if you have sex in a deserted field, you deserve to be filmed by a pervy cop! WHAT IF MY KIDS HAD SEEN YOU?!' 

 that's when I realized I'm really going to be disagreeing with this guy. It's very shallow, but when I find someone as breathtakingly attractive as Karamo Brown (calm down every one, I know he's gay, doesn't make him any less of a beautiful beautiful man) the vehemently disagreeing part always comes as a bit more of a disappointment.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

When the Slippery Slope Argument Has Merit

When you find yourself debating with someone that fundamentally disagrees with your reasoning, there are often many arguments one can use that will get you a lot of pushback. When it comes to logical fallacies this pushback is very well deserved, they are in fact fallacies and thus should not be used to bolster any claim one has. Barring those, however, one argument that I noticed which gets a disproportionate amount of heat is the "slippery slope" argument, to the point in which it too is often labelled a fallacy.

The slippery slope argument is a very simple one which I am sure we have all heard at some point. If we allow for gay marriage what's next?! Marriage between a child and a man?! Marriage between a horse and a woman?! It is MADNESS! It is a slippery slope which should not be ventured down to begin with! While I have chosen a very pedantic example which might lead you to consider it a fallacy, there is more nuance to the argument than that.

In online discussions I have noticed that there are two very large groups of people: the fans of the slippery slope, who will pull it out at any time if for a note of caution than for a real prediction of the future, and those who hate the slippery slope, who think that by simply labeling something as a slippery slope automatically invalidates the other person's objection to whatever topic is in discussion. While I tend to err on the side of not using the slippery slope argument, I do not think that it is entirely without merit.

In many cases, the argument is completely bogus. How does, for example, allowing two consenting adults of unspecified gender to enter into a contractual agreement in any way open the gate to a contract between an adult and someone, or something, which is unable to consent? It is absolutely ridiculous. There are also other, more insidious uses of the argument as well. For instance, there is the very popular opposition to changing the language of what it means to consent from "not saying no" to "agreeing (verbally or non-verbally) to engage in various acts, which can be withdrawn at any time". Many people (I'm looking at you too, Cenk) love to make sure that everyone knows that they would be totally against it if it somehow devolved into having to sign a legally binding contract, signed and witnessed, every time you want to touch a boob or make out. It is ludicrous, it is hyperbolic, and mentioning that you are against such an inflated and unrealistic potential scenario down the line every time consent and rape comes up in the discussion detracts from the point that rape culture is a serious societal problem. All of these cases lead me to want to reject the slippery slope argument whole-cloth as a logical fallacy, but certain events have made me hesitant to do so.
The slippery slope argument does hold merit under some circumstances, and that is when we talk about legal precedent. When a legal ruling is made, which does in fact open the door to taking things further to an absurd end, I feel that criticizing such a ruling on the grounds that it could lead to a slippery slope is fully justified.
Take, for example, the Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision in favor of allowing the Hobby Lobby corporation to not cover certain contraceptives in their health insurance plan for their employees, based on the sincerely held religious belief on the part of its owners that these contraceptives are abortifacients. 

Never mind the fact that their religious belief is in conflict with reality, as there is no scientific evidence that, for example, Plan B blocks implantation, but rather prevents ovulation, therefore the fertilization of the egg never occurs.

Never mind the fact that Hobby Lobby's retirement plan holds 73 million dollars in mutual funds with investment companies which produce actual abortifacients, a detail that did not lead the Supreme Court to find that this was not, therefore a "sincerely held" religious belief of theirs.

Nope. This ruling sets a legal precedent allowing for corporations to subvert US law, so long as such a law comes in conflict with its owner's sincerely held religious belief, regardless of whether or not the belief fits in with reality. Regardless of whether or not the sincerity of their claimed belief could be legittimately called into question given an inherent hypocrisy in the corporation's finances. All you have to do is claim it, and the language of this ruling would allow it.

To point out this is a slippery slope is not a fallacy, it's a fact.

Could a Christian Scientist who employs thousands of people deny them health coverage other than faith healing, because their sincerely held religious belief is that faith healing is the only thing that works, and that any other form of medicine is sinful?

Could an old school Chinese Buddhist only cover acupuncture and alternative herbal Chinese medicine, on the sincerely held religious belief that modern medicine is harmful and wrong?

If there is any language in this ruling that would prevent other such nonsensical religious beliefs from infringing on the rights of the employees the way that Hobby Lobby was allowed to do, please feel free to correct me.

Just because wingnut anti-choicers have been allowed to dominate the airwaves and normalize their opinions on contraception, that doesn't mean that this ruling applies only to them. The law is designed to be blind to popularity, blind to public opinion. The law allows any behaviour that fits within the letter of the law, not based on how many people subscribe to that belief. If someone, a member of an obscure religion from another country, came to the US and started a business, which became a corporation, and then it turned out that this person's sincerely held religious beliefs considered any kind of preventative health care (colonoscopies, breast cancer screenings, pap tests, mole checks, etc) was a sin against their god, this law would permit them to deny that coverage to their employees.

And this, my friends, is a true slippery slope, and it is called legal precedent.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

How About A Belated New Year's Resolution?

This Xmas was a bit of a mess in my family. Various health problems in the family caused us to split up this year and fly to different parts of the globe to see family members in need. The relatively last minute and spontaneous nature of these trips, at a particularly high traffic time no less, caused us to spend quite a bit of money on airfare. My ticket, having to travel the farthest and the closest time around Xmas due to my job, came to a whopping 1,200 euro, nothing to sneeze at. However I am fortunate in that I have a good stable job now, so it was a cost that I could absorb without too much gritting of teeth. However, one of my family members surprised me and covered the cost, despite my protests. I realized: I am finally in a place in my life where I can absorb this cost without feeling it too strongly. So, how about paying it forward?

I've decided my belated new year's resolution will be this: donate 100 euro per month to various charities. They need it more than I do right now.

For January? It has got to be the Atheist Community of Austin. They have put out so much excellent content, for free, that has been keeping me company through my late nights pipetting and staring down a microscope.

And for February? I'll have to think about it and let you know ;)

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Carnival Madness!

So today is officially the last day of Carnival, and I got to experience much of it here in one of the Carnival Capitals of Europe: Cologne.

When I first arrived here it became apparent that the Germans are not a particularly passionate people, especially from the Italian perspective, or a rowdy people, especially from the Irish perspective. Despite the fact that they love their beer, they are generally quite well behaved and contained in their emotions. However, I was told that there are two places at two times of year which represent the epitome of all of the repressed madness that the Germans have to offer: Munich at Oktoberfest, and Cologne at Carnival. Of course I had to jump all over that one, I wanted to see the ultimate in craziness that these Germans were capable of. I wasn't expecting to be shocked of course, after having lived in Dublin for five years, but I was still very curious.

So yesterday was the big Carnival celebration and parade in Cologne, where apparently everyone dresses up, fights over the candy thrown to the crowds and start drinking as soon as the parade begins, at 10 AM. Of course I had to laugh at this as typically German: they are obsessed with their Carnival, but celebrate it properly a day early, because God forbid they miss an extra day's work! Well anyway, these couple of videos give an idea of what it is like.


 Overall? I would rate it a 4/10 on the crazy scale. Definitely not the most mental celebration I have ever seen by a long shot, but good fun and a good day out for sure!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Hang On, What Was That?

First The Atheist Experience, then The Non-Prophets, and now the unfortunately defunct Godless Bitches are keeping me company as I spend 12 hours of my day slaving away in a lab. I'm properly tearing it up with the Atheist Community of Austin these days! I'm definitely donating to them for all of the entertainment they have provided.
Well anyway, the Godless Bitches Podcast shows began with snippits of various different songs. I don't usually pay much attention to songs I don't recognize, though I was pleasantly surprised when I heard that one of the songs was a rap song. Suddenly I started picking up the words... what was that? A rapper calling himself a feminist? Rapping about women's rights? Those are few and far between!
I immediately went online to try to find the name of the song and artist. Typing in various combinations of the lyrics I finally managed to track it down. Unfortunately it has been removed from YouTube, but once I managed to figure out the names of the rappers I found the song on their website. May I present:

"Personhood" by Johnny Hoax and Uncle Bungus

The guy doing the second verse isn't quite as good as the first one, but that isn't really the point of this story. The extremely ironic thing is that the only way I managed to find this site was through a blogpost of an anti-choice writer, defining her self an "abolitionist" who decided to dedicate an entire post to quoting bits of the song and bitching about it.
I was going to return the favor and quote bits of the post so that we could all have a good laugh about it, but it was such a mess of garbled idiocy that it was just too much effort and too much pain from the constant facepalming to unpack it all. Well, maybe just one little quote, so you get the idea:
"Why not just complain that no one should tell anyone else what they can do with any part of their body?
I'll tell you why - this would mean that proscribing rape and the Holocaust and might-makes-right "morality" is impossible."
If you think you have the stomach for it, you can find the whole post here.


Monday, February 9, 2015

Is Secular Humanism Only Compatible With Socialism?

I've been on a bit of a The Atheist Experience binge lately during my hours of pipetting and sitting in front of the microscope, and so I came across one particular episode in which an interesting question came up, and one that I do not think was answered or discussed in sufficient detail. The caller (watch from 38:00 of the video below for full context) basically floated the idea that an atheistic morality is only compatible with socialism as an economic structure, because it is centered around humans having inherent value, rather than capitalism, which promotes competition and stepping over your fellow man.
While the discussion travelled towards the limits of how much you can morally expect from an individual to put the needs of others over their own, the caller was steering the conversation towards economic policy, which forced Russell (much to his chagrin) even defend right-wing capitalism a little bit.

What they all failed to acknowledge is that most successful societies are based on an amalgamation of capitalism and socialism. While I agree that a pure cut-throat capitalistic society is not the best strategy, especially from a moral standpoint (what would that even look like? Pure libertarianism? More on that later) pure, unadulterated socialism doesn't work either.

Don't get me wrong, there are good reasons for socialism. The fundamental principle is to base a society on meritocracy, where every person is born equal and is not inherently superior by sole fortune of the circumstances in which they were born. Of course this is also why so many socialist countries have needed to rely on propaganda and censorship in order to convince their people that those in power actually deserve their leadership position (for an extreme example, see all of the ridiculous stories that come out of North Korea to justify the awesomeness of their leaders), but for the sake of argument lets forget about regimes which pervert the fundamental principles of their purported economic structure. Even disregarding the tendency of purely socialist states to devolve into dictatorships, a purely socialist economic structure does not take into account the fact that human beings respond to reward for their efforts.

My father tells an amusing story about when he was in Prague at the very end of the communist era. He had to travel a lot for work, and in this case he was in Prague for the first time with some colleagues which had traveled there before. They arrived late and hungry, and so they all went out in search of a restaurant where they could have dinner. When they knocked on the door of the first one they could find, the manager answered and informed them that the restaurant was completely full. While my father accepted this and turned to leave, his more experienced colleague protested and barged into the restaurant, which turned out to be completely empty. This man then explained to my father that this lie was commonly told because, since the people who ran the restaurant earned the same (and rather meager) wage regardless of the number of clients they served, they clearly preferred showing up to work and doing as little as possible. If your wages at the end of the day were the same regardless of the success of the restaurant, why bother busting your butt to serve as many people as well as possible?

Of course I also do not think that the other extreme is fair either, like servers in the States which have to basically prostitute themselves for tips because their base wage doesn't even come close to the minimum wage, let alone a living one. A healthy balance, in which people are rewarded for their hard work but at the same time do not have to worry about making ends meet at the month, is the most successful model that we have yet come across.

In my opinion, it is possible to have a healthy balance of the capitalist reward structure and basic socialist principles and safety nets. In fact, the most successful societies available today have a mixture of these two principles. Even if we are to disregard the "what makes for a successful society" argument and focus exclusively on morality, how does providing monetary rewards for hard work infringe on the morality of caring for your neighbor? How does allowing people to earn small luxuries, like a nice vacation or a day at the spa, after they have earned it with their efforts bring people to care less about their fellow man? While I absolutely concede that the US has struck the balance too far in favor of capitalism, I do not think that a purely socialist structure is the only one that is compatible with a secular morality. I think there is room for a bit of both within our moral principles.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

I Love That So Many Get This....

I'm starting to get to the age where the decision of whether or not to have kids has reached a new level of relevance in my life, and the first babies have already been born to my former high school classmates. Because of this, words cannot express how awesome it is that almost everyone I know in my age group agrees with this wholeheartedly, and are raising (or planning to raise) their kids with this basic rule as one that barely needs to be put into words for how obvious it is.

Breaking down societally-constructed gender norms FTW!

Friday, February 6, 2015

Wow! I Didn't Know That....

This is why I love skeptic talk shows, podcasts and websites. I may be a scientist but I sure as shit don't know everything about it, and I may be a vehemently anti-woo skeptic but I don't know about all of the fraudulent crap peddled out there.

While I was listening to another episode of The Atheist Experience (or was it The Non-Prophets? I'm not sure, but I think it was Russel who mentioned it) a useful website for the combating of the "why not just let people believe what they want to believe" argument came up, called Brilliant! That sounds like fun. So I clicked on it and had a little gander.

I found a lot of woo that I was very familiar with, but then I saw a subheading that stopped me in my tracks. Ear candling? Really? What is the harm in ear candling? Not that I know all that much about it, but I have seen it advertised in some waxing salons and such, I even figured I might do it sometime if I felt I had too much earwax buildup. I never saw it advertised as anything other than a way to remove excess ear wax, so it never pinged my woo-meter. The information, however, opened my eyes, and on reading further into the information linked on the page, my woo-meter went off the charts. If you don't feel like reading the whole thing, these excerpts are particularly damning:

More recently, two investigators tested candles to see whether the wax accumulated after burning came entirely from the candle or included wax that came from the ear. To do this they burned candles with the tip (a) inside the ear, (b) outside the ear, so the wax dripped into a bowl of water, and (b) inside the ear but with a tube in place that would permit ear wax to move into the tube but would block candle wax from moving downward. They demonstrated that all residue originated from the candle and that no ear wax was removed from the ear.

Since wax is sticky, the negative pressure needed to pull wax from the canal would have to be so powerful that it would rupture the eardrum in the process. However, candling produces no vacuum. Researchers who measured the pressure during candling of ear models found that no negative pressure was created. The same investigators candled eight ears and found that no ear wax was removed and candle wax was actually deposited in some of them! 

Ouch! Well, color me convinced! I'm just glad I've stumbled across this juicy bit of information before shelling out any money on a useless and potentially harmful procedure! 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Conflating Morality With Legality

I started thinking about this topic when I was discussing the legality of C-sections in Italy with a colleague of mine. I was unaware of this, but apparently it is technically illegal for a woman to give birth via C-section unless there is a legittimate medical reason for doing so. Given the rather loose language that entails, and the fact that there are far far more C-sections being performed in the South compared to Northern Italian states, leads us to believe that if a woman really wants to have one, she can find a doctor who will be willing to schedule her one. The point of disagreement between us was based on whether or not this law should exist at all.
Her perspective on this is that, while she has absolutely no problem with avoiding a vaginal birth for legittimate health concerns (a baby not turning, heart problems etc.), she believes that no woman should be allowed to simply opt for a C-section simply because of fear of a vaginal birth, stating studies that have found a correlation between cesarean births and an increased risk of certain chronic illnesses. It is her opinion that pregnancy comes with certain responsibilities, one of which is giving birth as nature intended, should you have a completely normal and healthy pregnancy. I of course disagreed, hence my writing this post.
I realized that all too often we conflate what we believe is immoral with what we believe should be illegal, and this is not, nor should it be always the case. Of course there is significant overlap between the two concepts, but there is also plenty of space for the two things to remain seperate. The problem is that morality is inherently subjective, especially when we begin to dissect these kinds of minor issues, while the law is objectively applied across the board. It is therefore important to not allow one's own opinion about the morality of something to affect a law which would be applied to everyone without good supporting reasons.

I disagreed with her reasoning because, essentially, I believe it comes down to bodily autonomy. Either someone has control over their own body, or they don't. It's the same reason why I think it doesn't matter whether or not someone thinks abortion is immoral, it should still be legal. While I concede that there is evidence that C-sections can lead to increased risk of certain kinds of illness, so can maternal obesity, gestational weight gain and, ever so importantly, drinking, but we don't go around criminalizing any of these behaviors simply because they bring an increased risk of harm to the fetus. We rely on educating women on the facts and dangers associated with certain behaviors but, ultimately, we trust them as adults to make their own decisions regarding their body and their life. To me, whether or not I think it is moral for a woman to opt for a C-section out of fear, her legal right to do so should not be in question.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A Baby Skeptic Stares At The Stars...

Yesterday's post had me thinking a lot about how I formed my views on reality and the universe as I was growing up. Yesterday I wrote about how my experiences led me in the wrong direction, away from reason. However, there were other aspects of my reasoning that betrayed the skeptic that I would eventually become. One such example was my pondering on how we perceive time and space.

As an only child I often needed to entertain myself, which is probably one of the many reasons I thought about the nature of reality so often to begin with. So when we would go to the countryside I did what countless children had also done before me, and that is lay back and stare up at the stars. Staring into space gave me vertigo the way that looking over the edge of a cliff never did. It was scary, but once I assured myself that there was no danger of falling into the abyss of space it was exciting, and brought on many thoughts about how limited our understanding of space and time must be.

I realized, based on my experience of space and time, that the linear perception of time was just not going to cut it when it came to the vast universe above me. That X comes before Y which comes before Z was all well and good when looking at the timeline of my life, but I realized that this linear perception of time was very limiting. So what came before the Earth? What came before that? And before that? If time is just purely linear, where did it all start? How could something just start? Doesn't there have to be something there for it to start from? The same went for space. Beyond this field is this country, beyond that is the world, beyond that is the galaxy, beyond that more galaxies and the universe, but what about beyond that? Could there be such a thing as true, limitless space? Doesn't it have to end somewhere? But if it does, what lies beyond it? Of course, my Catholic upbringing gave me a very easy answer to these concepts: Beyond space is heaven, before time there's God.

But even that seemed like a cop-out to me. How is pondering the possibility of a timeless God any easier to wrap your mind around than a time which has existed forever? How is conceiving of an infinite heaven any easier to comprehend than an infinite universe? Despite the whole "oh well one is natural and one is supernatural" explanation, it didn't seem like an answer so much as more of the same question. Because of this I came to my own conclusion: I just don't get it. And that's O.K.

I realized that we describe what is going on around us as best we can, but we (or, at least, I) don't have the capacity to really visualize such huge concepts as the beginning of time or the ends of space. My brain can't reach that far, and that's kind of cool. Like not being able to describe colors to someone who was born blind, there could be concepts completely beyond my realm of understanding, and there is nothing wrong with that.

I think the makings of a skeptic is to let go of the fear of the unknown. There are legitimate biological reasons why we are predisposed to fear that which we cannot see or perceive, but when it comes to certain concepts there is no need to invent and answer to fill in the blanks. Not knowing, or really coming to grips with the limits of our understanding doesn't have to be scary, it can be amazing. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

How Lucid Dreaming Contributed To My Woo Thinking

So a couple of days ago I told you about how I have been a lucid dreamer for as long as I remember. I allowed myself a little back-patting with the recent study indicating that lucid dreamers are more self-aware, but now I want to revisit the subject to discuss how lucid dreaming may have slowed my progress out of woo thinking and into rational thought.

Those of you who have read this blog more frequently may remember my post on how I became an atheist, written in response to an open call by PZ Myers on Pharyngula. In it I briefly touched on my fascination with forgotten religions and all things magical and woo. I was raised by a mother who is still very much attached to her new age-y beliefs, I don't think she has stopped believing in anything from aromatherapy to crystal healing, and I know for a fact she still believes in fairies, so of course I had little hope of rejecting these ideas as a child. Plus, let's face it, believing in magic is fun! At least for a while. The fact that she encouraged this fantastical thinking definitely hindered the development of my skeptical muscles, although the tendency to do so was always in my personality. Despite the fact that it is in my nature to be a skeptic, however, I later noticed that my lucid dreaming was, in a small way, responsible for keeping me back, at least with regards to some views of the world.

I mentioned in my previous post on the subject that it is difficult for one to escape one's own context, as it was for me with lucid dreaming. So when I was introduced (by my mother, of course) to the concept of "mind over matter", everything just made sense to me. She showed me programs like What the Bleep! (which at the time I of course had no idea was pseudo-scientific drivel) and convinced me that there were many gurus who had achieved things like levitation and walking on water. Not to place all the blame on her shoulders, I took little convincing. While I was skeptical about many things in my childhood (for example, I never bought the existence of the Easter bunny or the tooth fairy for a second, no matter how hard my mother tried), the idea that matter, which was made up of mostly empty space, was only solid to the touch because your conscience expected it to be, made perfect sense to me. The reason this made sense in my mind was directly because of my lucid dreaming.

Those of you who are capable of lucid dreaming know that honing your skills at it requires a lot of concentration. It requires you to shut out that little doubting voice in the back of your mind. Let's say, for example, you are dreaming you have the power of telekinesis, which you are using to defeat the monster in your nightmare. The second there is a little doubt in the back of your mind that says "oh no! What if this power stops working?" POOF! you don't have the power any more (I also blame movies and TV shows which always put the hero of the story in a bit of jeopardy with a twist like that for those doubts.... dumb movies). Perfecting your abilities in lucid dreaming is all about mind over (albeit perceived) matter. That is why I needed to get better at flying: at first I could only jump off of buildings and soar, and if I carried anything it would weigh me down. I then managed to pump my arms like a bird and take off from the ground. It took me years to be able to soar into the sky carrying any burden at will, because I had to concentrate, convince myself it was possible, and completely eliminate any doubt or fear. It is the same reason why making things disappear in your dreams is easier than changing their appearance, unless you close your eyes or place your hand in front of them while doing so. 

Because I was so well versed in the art of this kind of concentration, the reason the "mind over matter" concept made so much sense to me was because I figured that modifying your reality was like modifying your dreams, only infinitely harder.

Although lucid dreams are incredibly vivid and, at times, freakishly realistic, they still have that "taint" of a dream. You can still tell, once you wake up, that reality just feels much more "real" than dreams do, despite how real the dreams felt at the time. Because of this, it made sense to me that "mind over matter" would be much easier in dreams than reality. It made sense to me that it would take years of the kind of concentration I had been practicing in my sleep to be able to erase every last trace of doubt from your mind that your hand will not pass through that table, or that your body will not hover a few inches off the ground. It also made sense to me that it would require an even longer time concentrating to be able to pull off such a feat in front of others, with their disbelieving huffs tainting the back of your mind. 

It was because of the fact that I could dream this way, and that I had no idea that I was in the minority, that I clung on to this particular brand of woo for the longest of all of my woo thinking. It made so much sense to my context, to my life, that it made me wonder: are the inventors, or the major proponents of "mind over matter", also lucid dreamers? 

Friday, January 30, 2015

An Interesting Movie, Available on YouTube

While perusing YouTube during incubation periods, as I do on occasion, I discovered that a movie I bought several years ago is now available on YouTube.

I have refrained from reviewing movies on this blog in the past, because I can get very touchy about the movies that I adore and so usually keep those opinions to myself. I will make an exception in this case however, because although this movie is not in the category of you're-not-allowed-to-criticize-this-in-my-presence, I found it an incredibly interesting movie. 

It consists of a fictitious documentary, conducted by the BBC about the (relatively) modern-day United States, as history would have been had the South won the Civil War. It is aired on fake-American T.V. and thus complete with fake commercials in between segments of the documentary. Some of them are jarring, and when I first watched this movie I thought it was a little over the top. Until I got to the facts in the closing credits, and then it blew my mind.

It blew my mind so much that I have since recommended it to everyone I came across. Although you have to be in the mood for a movie consisting of a classically slow-paced history documentary, if you are in the right frame of mind and have an hour and a half to kill, this is well worth watching.

Boss of the Day

The Boss of today comes from... of all places... Mississippi! But seriously, how can you not love this guy? I'll let TYT explain

Unfortunately I tend to agree with Cenk and Ben, this guy is probably going to get fired. I hope he makes an ever-loving stink out of it, bringing the legality of this ridiculous Mississippi law into question.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

I've Always Said It.... And Now This Study Proves It!

Let's keep with the science theme shall we? Because I just love this study. Turns out, as I've been telling people that I am particularly self-aware, science backs me up! New evidence out: Lucid dreamers are more self-aware. Woop!

Now everyone calm down, I know this doesn't prove that every single lucid dreamer is an awesome self-awareness machine and everyone else sucks, take a breath, and allow me to take the tiniest victory lap for every time I've heard "Yeah, well, everyone thinks they're self-aware, but nobody actually knows they are, if you weren't you'd still think you were!"

OK, I'm done now, and a little back story for those who are interested (If you're not, skip ahead to the end).

It is very common for people to find it hard to escape their own context. For me, this was lucid dreaming and self-awareness. For a long time I thought that people who were not self-aware were simply being intellectually lazy, they were just not thinking about their own behaviors the way I would endlessly ponder my own, but if they just tried (perhaps with a little outside guidance) they could do it. I also didn't know until I went to college that most people could not, at the very least, notice they were dreaming and wake themselves up, if not change the landscape of the dream entirely.

The more I looked into it though, the more I discovered that I am actually particularly awesome at lucid dreaming.

One of my first memories of controlling my dreams was when I was no older than five, since I had not yet changed primary school at the time. I was often plagued by recurring nightmares, many of which I still remember in vivid detail. As they were recurring however I recognized them as dreams, though that didn't make them any less scary at the time. I then realized that I could wake myself up from them quite easily. It took me a couple of tries at first, squeezing my eyes shut and opening them again, until I managed to pop my real eyes open. 

This, however, did not solve the problem of falling back asleep into the same nightmare, so as I got older my skills developed. I started confronting the monsters in my nightmare and telling them to piss off when I finally understood that they were not real, just in my head (though I also found out the hard way that lucid dreamers can feel pain in their dreams). When I was having one of those "oh no I'm late I have to get to this place now and I can't manage it" dreams and I recognized it I would stop trying to get to wherever it was and start opening up random doors along the street, knowing my brain had just put them there as backdrop, just for the amusement of seeing what my brain would put behind them when given such short notice to come up with something. I then realized that I could put whatever I wanted behind those doors and just step into a whole new dream if the one that I was in got boring. I also perfected my ability to fly, which I have been able to do for as long as I could remember and was astonished when I discovered I was in the minority. I can now flit through different dreams at will, fly like superman and even erase entire characters from my dreams by simply snapping my fingers at them.

OK, after that little window into the depths of my psyche, how about the actual science?

Recently, the Max Plank Institute published a study which correlated Metacognition, or "thinking about thinking", with lucid dreaming abilities. 

Well, this makes sense, to an extent. Usually people are not aware they are dreaming when they are doing so, but if you are capable of lucid dreaming perhaps the part of the brain responsible for self-awareness is more developed, as it has had "more practice". This study simply gives evidence to that effect.

If you find the original article a little difficult to digest, IFLS sums it up very nicely

Ahh science, always interesting and, once in a while, hits particularly close to home. I do love it :)

I Love A Little Vindication....

Since I have not been active on this blog in quite some time, I have been scrolling through some of my old posts and comments. While the overall reaction to my posts has been relatively positive, the post which caused the most dissension was, strangely enough, the one in which I bemoaned the fact that I was sick, probably in part due to my having slept in a very cold room that night. 

WHAT?! OMG what bullshit cold temperatures don't contribute to your cold development NO WAY.

Now granted, the explanation that I put forth as to why cold temperatures could contribute to the development of your infection was a hypothesis, unproven, and one of the many that was floating around. But why are there so many hypotheses around to begin with?

Because the correlation between cold temperatures and cold/flu infection has progressed further than confirmation bias. There are studies which show this correlation, and although this does not demonstrate the cause, it is still something that warrants further investigation. If the numerous studies showed no correlation between the two we could dismiss this as a case of confirmation bias, end of story.

So, thanks to this correlation science has gone one step further, and looked for that causation factor. While the "stress reduces immune system efficacy" hypothesis which I spoke about in the previous post was touched on in the 1990s, new studies float a very different yet still excellent explanation of why this correlation exists.

There is now new evidence which suggests that the rhinovirus replicates better in your nasal passages when they are at lower temperatures - which happens when you are breathing in cold air for an extended period of time.

Yes, this study was conducted in mice, and more research is needed on this topic, but the evidence now is mounting that there is at least something that cold temperatures contribute to the progression of the illness. To dismiss the entire idea as bullshit is to ignore evidence.

I love me a little bit of vindication!