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.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Universal Snuggle-Care, Motivated Loneliness, and the Benefit of the Doubt

So a blogger popular with the Less Wrong community wrote something daft.  A lot of it is just highly motivated misreading of a popular concept, but there are some genuine nuggets of interest in there, nuggets worth unearthing.

Monday, September 1, 2014


One aspect of my deconversion story that stands out to many readers is that it didn’t feature certain accusations that atheists, especially freshly minted atheists, often receive.  Partly, that’s because I was secretive about it for so many years, so the people who would have accused me of things simply didn’t know it was an option.  More importantly, my culture, like some others, is entwined enough with its standard religion that it tends to forget that members of other religions, let alone of no religion, can be found in its ranks at all.  The space filled by atheists in others’ imaginations is filled by communists here, or by sullen nihilistic teenagers whose non-religion is only ever implied, not stated.

So I’ve only rarely had to deal with that stereotyped idea that an atheist is an atheist because xe is “angry at God,” and that if I only quelled, grew out of, or found a “more productive” outlet for my anger, I’d return to the Christian fold.  But I have nonetheless had that insulting supposition thrown at me more than once, and I want to silence it once and for all.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Command and Convenience

It’s easy to deride philosophy classes.  Few people have jobs as philosophers, so the entire field is easy to dismiss as esoteric navel-gazing, dooming most of its practitioners to lives of unskilled menial labor.  But there are few classes outside my specialization that I found more beneficial than my philosophy courses, because I acquired very valuable skills there.  Philosophy courses present difficult problems, problems that require very careful terms and proofs, and set their students on them to flex and build brain pathways.  Those problems touch on virtually the whole of human experience, between the various classical branches: What is real (metaphysics)?  What is knowledge (epistemology)? What is truth (both)?  What is beauty (aesthetics)?  What is good (ethics)?

And every time my philosophy courses got around to that last question, one particular lump of lunacy would be treated with vastly outsized seriousness: the divine command theory.

Monday, August 25, 2014

What is TMD?

It occurs to me that I’ve written about the experience of having temporomandibular disorder, but not what this poorly-understood affliction actually is.  And as some sources suggest a commanding fraction of adult humans have some sort of jaw dysfunction, looking into this strange affliction is a worthwhile exercise.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Dysfunction Defined

[TW: chronic illness, depression, suicide]

We are our bodies.

That sounds obvious, but it isn’t.  Cartesian dualism thoroughly infiltrates the English language and many others.  Many of the ways in which we talk about our bodies describe them as things we own, or carry, or inhabit, as though we were somehow distinct from the skeletons and meat.

My sense of my own consciousness is firmly anchored in my eyes.  Everything else is ancillary, a wall of sensation at a distance or a weird intrusion from the outside.  When I dream, I rarely have legs.  My dream avatar pushes itself through crowds with its arms, or it is nothing but disembodied eyes, watching more than participating in the dream’s events.  When I am more than that in dream, I am watching myself do things from the outside, a lucid vantage point on third-person adventure.  In those dreams, my oneiric body is usually someone else entirely: a minotaur, a Mexican woman, a robot.  I don’t have a sense of touch in my dreams, even when I have hands.  Those differences are how I tell when I’m dreaming, or when I’m recalling events that happened in dream: I can’t touch anything, I don’t have feet, and people don’t have faces.  And the world is usually in hazy grayscale with flashes of red or green to indicate the assorted Chekhov’s guns my dream-narrator likes to set up on my behalf.

There may or may not be anything to diagnose in those patterns.  But all of them are illusions, the fantasies of a mind that often feels estranged from and confused by the letters its frontier outposts deliver to it.  For the rest of us, our bodies and minds are not as distinct as my oneiromancer wants me to think they are.  Within this lipid-rimed assembly of motors and struts is a complex of sensors and wires, connections that make the events of the hands and intestines and small of the back as real and immediate as any thought or emotion—and every thought and emotion as real as leaving one’s hand too long on the stove.  The brain is only the largest and foremost organ of the self, anchoring and integrating the activities of all the others.

We are our bodies.

And when those bodies go wrong, it attacks the very definition of us.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Mover Out of Time

It does not take much to demonstrate the impossibility of many gods.  The bigger a god is, the more of the universe its devotees claim is within its sway, the more improbable its powers have to be to make what we do know about the universe compatible with its existence.  A river spirit or trickster that hides your socks when no one is looking has a small effect on reality, and can hide in the statistical noise that keeps our world de facto unpredictable.  A huge god, though, needs to be simultaneously of massive import, so that its influence permeates many facets and phenomena in the world, and utterly minuscule, so that it has an excuse for when it inevitably doesn’t show.  Thus, we get gods defined as controlling the weather, the course of wars, and whether anyone lives or dies, but whose influence is indistinguishable from the sum of the hundred and one worldly factors in and causes of all of these events; gods who can be expelled from their controlling niche by humans having the temerity to document and measure, as if God were mere quantum uncertainty; gods who use mortal movers as their proxies, merely shifting the problem one layer of agents upward with theological sleight of hand.

Christianity, between its native Abrahamic grandiosity and its wholesale lifting of neo-Platonic idealism, offers some of the largest gods.  Many versions of Christianity have gods so massive that they not only inflict weather events on people totally unrelated to whatever ostensibly displeased them, but they also, the soothsayers tell us, transcend time and space.  This god, even Jewish dreamers like to claim, exists outside of and independent of time, such that past, present, and future are all the same to it.  Events at any point in the universe’s progress are like the pages in a book this creature is reading, and flipping backward or forward is as easy for it as the analogy implies.  It created the universe and now sits outside it, a cosmic voyeur that may or may not ever interfere with unfolding events, depending on the version.

It will not surprise my readers, I am sure, to learn that this god is incoherent with both logic and the facts of our universe.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

It is still murder!

((Follow the links to find black voices saying it better than I ever could))

For the last several days, I, along with many others, have been following the situation in Ferguson, MO. For those not familiar with the story, an 18 year old was walking to his grandmother’s house with his friend when he was accosted by police. He was unarmed and despite that fact he was shot ten times, and his body was left on the street for several hours.

After the shooting, the people of the Ferguson community, devastated by the state of our world that makes police committed murder of black men an excusable offence without any serious punishment, took to the streets to protest. The police response was to don riot gear and use rubber bullets and tear gas. They shot many of the protesters. One woman even had to have surgery to remove the bullet put in her head by police officers. Throughout all of this we see a mourning community being harassed by an over-militarized and untrained police force.

The media played into the drama, characterizing the situation as “hostilities on both sides” and playing into thoroughly discredited attempts by the police to justify the killing after the fact by playing a game of character assassination. Throughout all of it though, one thought became obvious: racism is alive and well in the 21st century.

One thing that has been bothering me the most is this consistent implication that there is ever a justification for the unprovoked murder of a person by the police. It seems that the moment the victim is revealed to be a person of colour, the various rationalizations come up.

This boggles my mind. In the US, the right to due process, to a fair trial, is protected by the constitution. There exists no crime for which the punishment is execution without a trial. When police kill someone, they take away that right to due process.  It doesn’t matter if the person who died was a straight A student headed for college and taking care of his grandma, or a drug addicted criminal. The reasonable expectation of not having your life cut short by a person of authority is a RIGHT and not a privilege. If that expectation doesn’t exist, then you are not living in a free country. That is a level of tyranny that should be reserved for the worst dictatorships and not happen in a country that parades itself as the bastion of freedom!

When people claim that what happened wasn’t a race issue,they ignore one simple truth. Most people in the US have an expectation that if they ever have to deal with cops, that they will come out of the encounter with their lives. That if something were to happen to them that was unprovoked, that they would find justice. This is not the case for black folk in the US. Every encounter with the cops is not just a risk, but also if the worst should happen, they have to deal with the truth that they will be vilified and find no justice for their needless deaths.

No one should have to fear for their life. No one should have to fear for their life because of the colour of their skin. No one should be treated as disposable or unworthy. No one should have to earn the right to have their untimely death seen as a tragedy. No one should have to prove they are worthy of life! Of freedom! Of safety from a tyrannical authority.

As white people, we are not and can never be Mike Brown. We are not Trayvon Martin. But what we can be is a support for these men and their community. What we can be is an amplifier for the voices calling out for justice, for an end to tyranny, for an end to racism. When necessary we can be a shield, using our privileged flesh to block the slings, arrows, and bullets of a corrupt authority. Not just can be but MUST be! Because when we stand idly by and watch the murders without comment, when we pretend there is any justification for death, when we allow the media to tar and feather a community just because we don’t want to feel guilty about an accident of birth that left us safer in a land that pretends to be free, when we do that, that blood is as much on our hands. Our silence gives consent for death.

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