Saturday, October 18, 2014

Apocalypse of the Week 2: Omnidirectional Zergling Rush

Hello again!  This week’s apocalypse comes from a bit farther in time and space than the Islamic mythos previously explored.  In the mountains of 6th-century-BCE Nepal, the Buddha and his most prominent disciples waxed lyrical about an endworld scenario like no other.  As Buddhism would have it, civilization will end as the world suffers a steady increase in “unskillful” behavior.

That’s…remarkably reasonable.  Civilization falls apart as a result of an epidemic of incompetence?  I’d almost buy it, given the special class of nincompoop that seems to occupy too many government offices, including those armed with the ability to render vast swaths of the world uninhabitable for decades.  Apparently the Three Stooges are prophets of slapstick.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Think Like a Bug: How to Deal with Common Pest Arthropods

In the various circles I have inhabited, I have always, always been the one who is most okay with creepy-crawlies.  My friends and family alternately flee from or declare pogroms on the multi-legged urban wildlife they encounter, unless I am around.  Then, they notice the demanding smolder in my eyes and let me escort the errant creatures outside, away from insistent shoes.

It’s a clichĂ©, but most of those creatures are not dangerous, only misunderstood.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Apocalypse of the Week 1: Taste the Doom of Fire!

As part of the lead-up to Centre for Inquiry Ottawa’s Eschaton 2012 conference, Celebrating Reason at the End of the World, I wrote a feature called Apocalypse When, a brief lampooning of some of the many eschatological visions and scenarios that have gained or maintained popularity over the centuries. is defunct now, so I’m reprising my creation here.

This week’s apocalypse is the one envisioned in the Qur’an and various hadiths and thus central to most interpretations of Islam.  Unfortunately, the details of this scenario are dispersed across numerous suras and hadiths, but a few themes and tidbits stand out.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Facebook Channel

I owe a lot of my social life to Facebook.  I joined at a close friend’s suggestion back when it was still, back when it was university-only and I could refer to people’s profile images as their “Facebook photos” because it hadn’t yet become the largest image-hosting service on the planet.  It rapidly became a low-effort way for me to stay apprised of my friends’ activities and life events, a way to occasionally meet new people, and a way to rapidly get basic info about people I’d just met elsewhere and figure out whether I wanted to deal with them any further.  Facebook was a big part of how I came out as an atheist, among other instances of shedding secrecy, and it continues to be part of how I explore and define myself.  I have an extended network of like-minded fellows largely because Facebook let me become far better informed about people than AOL Instant Messenger or face-to-face contact ever would. 

This widening of my horizons is made possible by the way social networks like Facebook combine a personal statement, a connection diagram, and a 24-hour cocktail party.  Only in this cocktail party, it’s not just okay but intentional and expected that everyone is constantly eavesdropping on everyone else to degrees that would get people thrown out of regular parties.  Communication no longer has to be direct, immediate, and personal, and anything that takes the need for synchronicity out of talking to people meets with my swift approval.  I do not have the time, energy, or inclination to stay on top of all of the people whose life events interest me or vice versa, except by a channel like this.

So it baffles me that the otherwise consistently wonderful Wait But Why has arranged for people talking about their own life events, in and of itself, to occupy all seven entries in a list of “Seven Ways to be Insufferable on Facebook.”  This person, in no uncertain terms, finds other people sharing good or bad news about their own affairs to be a personal affront, a way by which people extract pleasure from others without offering them anything in return.

I am blown away by the sheer narcissism of this concept.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Full Faith and Credit

Of all the phrases theists use to lull themselves to sleep each night, “atheists have faith just like we do” might be the most obnoxious.

“Faith” is one of several word games believers play with nonbelievers when they’re feeling dishonest, alongside “spirituality” and, beautifully, “belief.”  These games bank on how deviously slippery those words are, as they can mean more-or-less whatever the person using them wants them to mean.  While all of these games are infuriating, “faith” gets under my skin more than the others, because it is somehow more dishonest.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Why I Am a Feminist

A while back, one of my favorite humans asked me how I became a feminist, and I didn’t have a good answer…because I don’t think I ever wasn’t.  So I thought about it some more.

Monday, September 22, 2014

An Imaginary Q&A on the World’s Degrees of Britishness

As many readers are undoubtedly aware, this past week the people of Scotland held a long-awaited referendum on whether to become an independent country.  What, exactly, this means has been more confusing than it should have been, because Scotland exists at a nexus of confusion within the mess of terms used to describe that general region of Europe.  With my trusty Imaginary Correspondent, let’s sort that out.

Imaginary Correspondent: I find Britishness quaint and also confusing.  Where do we start?

Alexander: Geography.

IC: Okay…

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Inquisitions and Herd Immunity

One thing that will never stop surprising me is the degree to which anti-vaccination campaigns have spread their message.  Dozens of different versions, each ignoring a different combination of inconvenient facts about how vaccines work and what illnesses they don’t cause, all circulate around the Internet, ensnaring people of every political persuasion.  I can understand the mistrust of the medical establishment, whose record is far from clean.  I can understand the societal memory loss that has made vaccines seem unnecessary now that smallpox, polio, diphtheria, measles, and mumps epidemics are no longer the stuff of every Westerner’s childhood.  I can understand the Hobbesian choices imposed by the lack of universal healthcare access in the United States.

I have a lot more trouble understanding the confusion about the societal role of vaccines in protecting the unvaccinated, because religions use that principle all the time to police their own.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Everyone is biased but me

I am so sick of the special snowflakes who talk all about people's inherent biases and then think that they themselves don't have them.
Nope sorry. In the same way that our culture preferentially treats religion as better than atheism it treats men as better than women, white folk as better than PoC, abled folk as better than disabled folk, cis folk as better than trans folk, etc. etc. etc. We are all victims of this socialization and we are all guilty of it. What makes the difference is how you respond when it is pointed out to you.
You can either realize that you are a product of your culture and work to do better in the future. To pay attention to the ways in which this socialization manifests in what you say, how you act, how you treat people. That or you can pretend that just because you are aware of one bias you had you are aware of all of them. You can be arrogant enough to think that you and you alone somehow managed to avoid all the socialization of the culture you grew up in.
This applies to everyone. One of the hardest things I had to was admit that even though "I wasn't racist", I was a product of a culture that was and that I had unconscious bias along those lines. Because they were unconscious, I had to, and HAVE to apply critical thinking to everything I do and say to become aware of them and how they impact my actions, my words, my thinking. It is difficult and you won't always succeed. I certainly don't. But you do have to make an effort and more than that, you do have to do better.
If you find yourself thinking: I couldn't have said something [sexist, ableist, racist, transphobic, homophobic, etc] because I'm not etc. or because I didn't mean to be etc. STOP. Apply critical thinking. And more than that, take a moment to consider that your critical thinking might be flawed when applied to yourself, and take a moment to think about what other people are saying.
This is especially true if you market yourself as someone critical of ideas, as a critical thinker, as a rationalist, etc. Otherwise, you're just another hypocrite.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Sounds of Summer: The Charming Cicada Cacophony

The central-eastern chunk of North America has a very distinctive background noise for a substantial chunk of the year.  While this sound is not totally distinctive to the United States and Canada east of the Mississippi River, the one here has special properties.  I speak, of course, of the buzz of the cicadas.  Erroneously called “locusts” because of their size and song, these insects have far more going on than meets the eye.

I remember my first encounter with one very well.  I added the placid, unknown behemoth to one of several plastic insect habitats that were my favorite toys during the warmer New Jersey months, alongside some houseflies and beetles I’d caught earlier that day.  I had to go inside, probably for food, and we soon heard a noise that we thought was some sort of chainsaw or motorcycle, but coming from the backyard.  Alarmed and confused, my parents and I went outside and quickly localized the sound to the insect dome, and to the huge bug inside.  The heat had given it a bit more energy and an amplifier, which it naturally devoted to its mating call.  I let the beast go shortly thereafter.  Cicadas would have a special place in my heart after that, combining teeming masses with an alien countenance.

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