Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Pimping yourself for fun and... fun?

I usually think of myself as a pretty young guy but, every now and then, I start to realize that I'm getting older. Sometimes this is because I find myself getting grumpy about college parties.* Other times it's because I realize I have no idea what musical groups are popular right now.** And sometimes it's when I find myself believing that undergrads today are batshit crazy.

Many of you, I'm sure, are already nodding your heads but in this case I'm referring to a specific cluster of phenomena. It's what I think of as an enhanced willingness to pimp oneself out for bargain basement prices. What does all this mean? Well, at a relatively innocuous level it started with the trend of wearing clothing that has manufacturer's names stamped across the front. This is, in short, brilliant as it's advertising that the company doesn't have to pay for. Better than that, the customer actually pays the company for the honor of advertising the product. Tres stoopid, as the French would say. This trend has not diminished in popularity but has, over time, morphed into something far worse- advertising oneself.

Don't know what I mean? Well, let me ask you this: have you seen students wandering around your local college campus during the warmer months? Of course you have. And have you seen them wearing shorts with slogans like "Juicy" slapped across their ass? Of course you have. Indeed, the fashion at many campuses has been tending towards a sort of crass sexualization that I find, frankly, mind boggling. I have even had conversations with other grad students- male and female- in which we all agreed that our students need to wear more damned clothing. It's not that I mind that my students come to class either looking like hobos or just plain hos, but I mind that my students come to class looking like hobos or just plain hos. And really, it's as though our students have converted themselves into walking showrooms- buffing and preparing themselves as though they're cars waiting on the sales lot. That said, no doubt my grandparents felt the same way when women started walking around with bare ankles, but I digress.

Interestingly, when I or other grad students have questioned some of our students about this we get some funny responses. Males I have asked about it pretty much just shut down and ask why I gotta be like that. Indeed, I am helpless before such scintillating rhetoric. Females, on the other hand, have a more involved explanation: now that women's liberation has triumphed completely*** it's an expression of personal power to dress like an uber-skank. I, like many of my female colleagues, am somewhat skeptical of this. And, more to the point right now, I tend to think it's just part of the overall trend towards commercializing our identities. If we have made ourselves commodities then why not commodify our sexuality completely? Why not apply labels to our various body parts to advertise their positive qualities, much as manufacturers do on the outside of their boxes? If our cereal is now fortified with 14 essential vitamins and minerals, why not inform the world that our ass is tight and clutch-worthy?

And as I have been thinking about all this, the world has moved on without me again. These two strains of self-pimpage have now merged into the startling entity of LoyalTV. What is LoyalTV? Well, it's effectively a YouTube dedicated to product reviews. Not such a bad idea except many of the reviews are more like commercials. And many of these commercials are a little... surprising. Take, for example, this commercial about toothpaste. Her main point, that it makes your breath fresh for at least ten hours isn't particularly novel... presenting it in her bra, however, is. Along similar lines, try this commercial for deodorant. Glad to hear that the product works for this young lady but, then again, she apparently doesn't labor under a BO problem.**** I think there was a time when companies had to pay women to run around scantilly clad in order to sell products- I certainly remember a number of beer commercials that implied that their product would magically summon hordes of bikini-clad teenagers- but this is a much better deal. The companies get commercials with sex-appeal and have to pay... absolutely nothing.

I don't have a problem with people doing this- it's their right after all- but I think it's a little bizarre that we've become so willing to commodify our own bodies and identities for so little no reward at all. But, hey, that's life. As I said, I'm getting older and maybe this is just my equivalent of yelling at those damned kids down the block to stop playing that Z.Z. Top nonsense. Time, I suppose, will tell.

But in the meantime, seriously folks, can we at least wear shorts that cover our entire ass when we come to class? There are things about you I just don't need to know.


* In fairness, when I was a college student I was grumpy about college parties. I just do not like people.

** Also in fairness, in my youth I didn't particularly like the popular groups. And yes, for the record, that includes Dave Matthews. Ugh.

*** Anyone who can read that with a straight face has a serious deficiency in their sense of the absurd.

**** Or a shirt.

Special thanks to Something Awful for making me aware of LoyalTV.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

On Atheism: Part One*

A while back I promised that I was going to start writing a series of posts explaining a few things about atheism. Or, at least, about my atheism. I named several topics I was planning to cover including why it is important to me to be an atheist, why it is important for me to talk about it, and why being an atheist makes me happy. Today's post is, quite obviously, the first in that promised series.

Now, as a beginning, we need to handle some definitions. Particularly, we need to understand what we mean by "atheist." It is unfortunately the case that many people have some pretty bizarre ideas about what an atheist is. In my experience, it is commonly thought that atheists are people who don't believe in anything- essentially nihilists who dress in black and read bad poetry in coffee houses. Some are, it's true, but by and large the majority of atheists do not resemble this. Atheists can and do have beliefs and it's important that we get the absurd stereotypes out of our heads.

To understand what atheists are we first need to introduce a distinction betweek "weak" and "strong" atheism. In each of these two cases the person in question does not believe in any god, but there is a distinction between them. A weak atheist simply fails to believe in god. Put another way, they recognize a lack of evidence in favor of a divine being and so fail to believe in one. The strong atheist, in contrast, disbelieves. Put another way, the strong atheist asserts that there is no god, while the weak atheist simply fails to actively believe in a god. This is a subtle distinction made even more murky by the sloppiness of the English language. Consider, for a moment, the statement "I don't like her." This literally means, "I do not like her." Does that necessarily mean you dislike her? No, not necessarily; it just means you do not actively like the person in question. You could feel negatively or, indeed, you could feel indifferent. In either case, the original comment is true- you do not like her. While linguistically we often take the statement "I don't like her" to mean that the speaker harbors negative feeling, this reduces us to a binary that may not be accurate. So, we have three options in interpersonal feeling: liking, neutrality, and animosity. Likewise, a theist believes in a god, a weak atheist fails to believe in god, and a strong atheist disbelieves in god. Most often when people think of atheists they imagine the strong type but, in my experience, the weak type is numerically more prevalent. Having worked through this discussion, however, I should point out that technically agnostics, who believe it's impossible to say one way or the other, would qualify as weak atheists. Is this my little effort to claim lots of people as atheists? Nah, it's not. Mostly when I talk about atheists, I mean the strong kind, but it's important to know that the other sort exist.

The second distinction we have to introduce is between idealism, dualism, and materialism.** These are three ways of categorizing philosophical views of the world. The idealist believes that all things are spirit and that the material world is essentially an illusion. Arguably, Mahayana Buddhism is an idealistic philosophy. The dualist believes that there exists both a distinctly spiritual and a distinctly material existence that are both real and valid. Christianity, thus, is a dualistic philosophy as it includes both a real existence for the body and a real existence for an immaterial soul. Finally, the materialist believes that only the physical exists and there is no immaterial soul or distinctly spiritual realm/forces. This is, in effect, the "what you see is what you get" approach to understanding the world. Believe it or not, any of these three categories can include atheists. You can believe in an immaterial soul without believing in a god, for example. Alternatively, you can believe that the material is the extent of what exists. Most often, atheists are assumed to be materialists*** but this is not automatically the case.

So, given these two type of categorizations, where do I fall? Well, I am a strong materialist atheist. Thus I assert that there is no god and that the material world around us is the extent of existence. I do not believe in an immaterial soul or any sort of spiritual energy or force. I believe that when I die I will cease to exist and, indeed, that when anyone dies they cease to exist. When I am sad or afraid I do not pray or ask for help from a higher power. I am, thus, what most people probably think of when they think atheist (except for the nihilism/coffee house/crappy wardrobe thing) but I am not by any means an example of the most common kind of atheist. In fact, I think strong materialist atheists are relatively rare, but we're the most fun at parties.

With the preliminaries taken care of, we're now ready to get to our first question: why is it important to me to be an atheist?

This one, actually, is a really easy question to answer. The first thing, though, is you have to ask yourself a question: can you just choose to believe something at will? Now, I'm serious: can you choose to believe that the world is flat? How about that 2+2=4? Can you just choose to believe that there is one true god and his name is Vishnu? Odds are, your answer is no. You probably do believe some or all of those things, but you can't just turn your belief on or off like a light. Instead, you come to believe something and will probably continue to believe it until you are convinced otherwise. So, you want to stop thinking of my atheism as something I just chose to do one day. I did not decide one day to piss off my parents by becoming an atheist. Certainly, people may do something like that from time to time but it's not genuine belief any more than putting a nativity scene in your front yard makes you a devout Christian. Rather, over time I came to be an atheist and only realized it after the fact. My belief in atheism came first, my assumption of the label came second. I am an atheist because that's what I believe. I believe it because it makes sense to me intellectually and emotionally.**** I could reel off all of the reasons, logical and emotional, for this belief but what is the point? I'm not interested in converting you- only in explaining some aspects of what it's like for me to be an atheist.

The second part of this question, however, really stems from Wicked Anomie's comment to my original post expressing interest in why atheists assume such a stigmatized identity. This is a different question because I could believe, as I do, in strong materialist atheism, but yet hide that belief. I could be a closet atheist, more or less, who goes to church and sits in the pew but privately thinks it is all hooey. So why don't I do that?

Well, for two reasons: respect for myself and respect for others. In the first case, the simple reality is that I have a strong appreciation for honesty and directness. I am not a theist. I do not believe in any god and claiming otherwise is nothing more or less than lying. I do not want to live with constant, unavoidable dishonesty. I do not want to have to hide who and what I am. So, whether it produces stigma or not, in order to be honest with myself and others I must claim the atheist identity. This does not, of course, mean that I have to scream it at everyone I meet, but it does mean that if it comes up I can't run or hide from it.

In the second case, however, claiming my identity as an atheist is a matter of respect for others. I do, indeed, have friends who are deeply religious. My occasional co-blogger Slag, for example, is a wonderful example of the potential positive effects of Christian faith. If there is anyone who might stand a chance of converting me, it would be him. I have nothing but the deepest respect and fondness for the guy. So how might he feel if he knew that I was sitting in his congregation, following along with the service, and all the time believing that the whole thing was just a bunch of superstitious nonsense? I rather expect that, forgiving as he is, he probably wouldn't appreciate it very much. You see, if I pretend to be something other than what I am, I don't just fail to be honest with myself, but I end up mocking the deeply held beliefs of others. I disagree with religious belief, but I respect the right of others to follow their own conscience. And in order for me to demand respect for my views, I must first be willing to offer respect to others. By claiming my identity I at least show respect for those with whom I disagree.

So that, in a nutshell, is why it's important for me to claim the identity "atheist." Hopefully this seems like a let-down, as though I failed to reveal any secrets. That's good because we atheists have no secrets. There's no secret handshake or deep secret pain. We're just people who believe certain things and want to live peacefully, and respectfully, with others.*****

And hopefully my next post on the subject will be equally disappointing.


* How's that for a pretentious title?

** Alas, I will not do full justice to there categories, but I'll do my best.

*** Particularly by the gnomes over on Conservapedia.

**** This may seem like a cop-out but I've decided to save the discussion of what atheism means to me emotionally until we get to the question about "Why being an atheist makes me happy."

***** With the probable exception of Dick Dawkins.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Gaze upon my blog and despair.

Some of you will recall I recently took a trip from which I have returned more wicked and powerful than ever. The trip my wife and I took did not unfold as planned, primarily due to a spot of very heavy weather that deprived us of electrical power and accessible roads for nearly the full duration. On the plus side, we did manage to rustle up some hot water after a few days of otherwise bracing* showers. Rather than give you a full account of our trip, which would be absurdly dull in any case, allow me instead to share a small selection of photographs that you may interpret in the manner of your own choosing.**











Wasn't that fun? Good. Now go away. I have work to do and the Red Cross was running late today.***

* In this case meaning, "hypothermia-inducing."

** Thus both encouraging your basic creativity and catering to my innate sloth.

*** No, there's nothing wrong with me. Just the usual.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Total Drek is helpless before peer pressure.

There has been a trend recently, helped along by Practicing Idealist and Wicked Anomie, of bragging about one's teaching acumen. Not one to be left out of an opportunity to fill a blog post with useless uninteresting drivel, I thought I might as well hop aboard the band wagon myself and tell you guys about how my teaching is teh awesome.

Then, however, I thought I could do something better: I'll let my students tell you about how my teaching is teh awesome. So, for your reading enjoyment, a selection of the comments from my most recent set of teacher-course evaluations.* Enjoy!

"I liked Mr. the Uninteresting's professional approach to teaching his students. He really cares about us so he tries pretty hard. He also tries to make sure that those students who work hard will not fail miserably."

"This is one of the very few courses in which I don't get upset when I take a bad grade. I believe the instructor makes the study fascinating and I appreciate his way of explaining things, the additional material provided, the help provided during office hours."

"The enthusiasm of the instructor and his sheer passion for the subject. The book was very easy to understand and so were his lectures."

"The instructor was a pretty cool guy."

"You made it really fun! Pretty laid back way of teaching- I liked it."

"I liked how enthusiastic you were and how you made little jokes here and there. It kept it interesting. You're also very good at explaining things in different ways if we don't understand something."

"The teacher is efficient and I feel like he is confident when he teaches. He is able to explain concepts well and didn't move too fast."

"Drek's humor, enthusiasm and his commitment to his students and material. He's very eager and always willing to help and I really appreciate that. Thanks for all the help!"

"The text is useful, the class time was well spent, teaching very effective."

"He is willing to work with his students. A question is never a dumb question with Drek."

"Lectures are very informative and easy to follow."

"I liked that I actually learned a lot. His teaching style was good for me."

"Honestly one of my best teachers, only one who really has been able to take hard material and teach it to me to where I understand it. THANK YOU!"

"Great teacher, passionate about subject, challenging tests, I actually learned something! For a difficult course, he made it seem easy."

"I liked the instructor! He really loves the subject and makes it easy for all of us to learn."


And there you go. Obviously, not all of my comments were good, but by and large I'm satisfied with the feedback and don't feel the need to post the negative because it's my blog and I'll do what I want. So, I may be a generally disagreeable cuss, but I'm also pretty damned good at my job.

And I think I can live with that.


* For the record, I think TCE's are about as useful for gauging an instructor's skill as a ouija board.

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Friday, January 25, 2008

That friendly rivalry.

Folks who have brains no doubt know that there is a certain amount of hostility between the United States and France. I don't mean that we're about to go to war or anything like that- we've been allies of a sort for quite a while- but rather that our two nations just don't seem to get along all that well. The French make fun of Americans for being overweight, unsophisticated, crude buffoons.* We, on the other hand, make fun of them for being gawky, prissy, pampered wannabes.** They criticize us for our social policies... or lack thereof, as the case may be. We, in return, point out that their sense of cultural superiority produces immigrant ghettos in the midst of their largest cities. They then retort that we're even more racist than they are and ignorant to boot. And we, in classic American style, change the name of "French fries" to "freedom fries," because that will obviously wound them. As Kelso would say, "Wicked burn!" The more intelligent among us, however, point out that while we may eat some horrible, horrible stuff, at least we don't dine on ortolan.*** And around and around it goes.

I've often thought that the reason why France and the U.S. don't much care for each other is that we're just too much alike. We both see ourselves as paragons of democracy, freedom, and human civilization. We both see it as our duty to somehow share our genius with the rest of the world. We both host citizens who think they're better than everyone else and, evidently, we're given to crass stereotypes about others.**** Basically, we're both countries that a lot of other nations would just as soon never have to talk to again. So, when we run into one another it becomes the battle of the heavyweight egos- like two sumo wrestlers yanking on each other's linen g-strings while grunting in fury.

I bring this up because I think we may be at the cusp of a new era in Franco-American competition. Some of you may be aware that political candidates like Dennis Kucinich and Fred Thompson are married. What you may not be aware of is that they are married to women who have been described by some analysts as "hotties." Specifically:





Now, some of you may think that this stems from the desire of older men to have trophy wives or a secret test program for androids.***** Sort of a first lady from Stepford, if you will. Neither of these explanations are correct, however, as both of these political spouses were, in fact, chosen to tweak the French. This is simply because the French consider themselves to be the undisputed champs of political/sexual escapades. Well, not to be outdone, the French immediately elected Nicolas Sarcozy who returned fire on the upstart Americans by daringly fondling a woman in public:



As if this wasn't enough, Sarcozy then raised the stakes by beginning to date former model Carla Bruni who doesn't exactly resemble the spouse of any head of state I am familiar with. However, the French have not chosen to stop there. Instead, in an effort to assert their dominance of the sexual escapade category for all time, Carla Bruni has now started taking interviews topless:

A Gorgeous, husky-voiced supermodel greeting me with the words "Sorry for being topless" will go down in memory as the greatest celebrity introduction of my journalistic career.

As an opening gambit, it was pure conversational Viagra and a welcome change from the cold, dead-eyed greetings you usually get from actresses, models and TV starlets.

Although perhaps not quite the brand of etiquette you'd expect from a woman who may well become France's first lady.

But that's how Carla Bruni, who appears to be the new wife of French president Nicolas Sarkozy, decided to present herself to me not that long ago when I encountered her at her home, a grand, shabby-chic apartment in a fashionable Paris arrondissement.

Carla, naked from the waist up, was having her make-up done at the time - I was interviewing her for a glossy magazine - and seemed only vaguely embarrassed by her evidently chilly state of undress.


This cannot be allowed to stand. The French have cast down the gauntlet and we Americans must respond. At the same time, however, I think our brave American women have already suffered enough for the cause and it is now time for America's men to step up and answer the call. So, I would like to formally call for the introduction of a swimsuit competition to the U.S. Presidential Debates. First, the candidates can argue, then they can try to wow us with the latest swimwear. In some cases, this probably won't be so bad for the audience:



Other times things might get a tad... ugly:



As these artist's conceptions****** show there will be sacrifices involved, but we must make them for the good of the country. I'm just glad we live in a world that is so peaceful and calm that the spouses of political leaders qualify as important national concerns.

So write your Congressperson and tell them in no uncertain terms: If you don't make John McCain wear a speedo, you're letting the terrorists French win!


* So, you know, they're right.

** So, you know, we're right too.

*** Probably the most horrible foodstuff I have ever heard of.

**** This post being a fantastic example.

***** I know the correct term is "gynoid" but there are probably less than six of you who know that too.

****** In this case it would probably be more accurate to refer to them as "artist's misconceptions."

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Despite evidence to the contrary, it turns out that I have style.

Or, more accurately, I have a style. I have come to this realization courtesy of the good boys and girls at Conservapedia and their extremely helpful article "atheistic style." I was unaware that atheists had a distinct style, especially given that we're so incredibly diverse, but as Conservapedia is the "trustworthy encyclopedia" I suppose it must be true. Some of you may be wondering what this style is so allow me to enlighten you by listing the elements of atheistic style below, with my own reactions mingled within.

Atheistic Style According to Conservapedia:

1. a refusal to recognize how democracy relied on Christianity, and how no atheistic culture has lasting democracy.

Well, considering that democracy really got its start in ancient Greece, thus predating the birth of Christ by at least four centuries, I think the atheists may have a point on this one. Not sure what to say about that "atheistic culture" bit, to be honest.

2. a refusal to credit the role played by faith in great contributions of many people, such as Isaac Newton.

Probably a fair point although, at the same time, it's mirrored by a theistic refusal to recognize the role of faith in many atrocities and inequities. Can we just say we're both biased and call it even?

3. a general disbelief of unseen and unquantifiable concepts, such as love, intrinsic beauty and fidelity.

Huh? Seriously? I believe in love just fine (ask my wife) although I think it has its origins in the brain. Fidelity... um... my sense of loyalty and duty is just fine, thank you. As for intrinsic beauty, well, you've got me there but haven't we pretty much been in agreement that beauty is in the eye of the beholder for about 2,300 years? I do admit, however, that I'm skeptical about unobservable entities like god, satan, angels, bigfoot, and the lochness monster but that's a little different from "love" and "fidelity."

4. a belief that atheists are somehow smarter than those having faith, downplaying contributions by Christians.

Naw, not smarter. More ornery, yes, but not necessarily any smarter. We probably do downplay the contributions of Christians sometimes, though.

5. a belief that humans are smarter today than 100 and 1000 years ago.

No. Absolutely not. Better educated, better nourished, healthier, yes, but not smarter.

6. a view that most of science is known and understood, in contrast to Isaac Newton's view that little is understood.

Again, no. I think quite a bit remains to be understood. That said we have some pretty kickass models so any new revelations are going to have to somehow accomodate a growing mountain of scientific data and verified theory.

7. a focus on materialism, and a devotion to relativism in many forms.

Not sure what this means, really. I am a materialist atheist but Buddhists are, arguably, non-materialist atheists so this claim lacks face validity. The whole "devotion to relativism" thing is a red herring as well. There are plenty of atheists who believe in moral absolutes, they're just not absolutes rooted in an invisible supreme being.

8. a generally pessimistic or depressed view of life.

Sorry, folks, I can't stop laughing at this long enough to respond to it.

9. among scientists, a belief in never-detected gravitons, black holes, dark matter, super strings and life in outer space.

Woah, woah, woah: in point 3 above we were said to generally disbelieve in the unseen. Now we're characterized by our willingness to believe in the unseen? Shit, it's no mean trick to do both. Besides, that "never-detected" bit is just wrong. We know dark matter or something like it exists since... you know... our galaxy doesn't fly apart. When there is as much evidence for angels as there is for dark matter, we can talk. As for black holes... hellloooooo nurse! The case for super strings and extraterrestrial life isn't as strong but, then again, I don't think there are many scientists who would claim that it is.

10. belief in the Nobel Prize, universities and newspapers as oracles of truth.

No, I don't think any of the above are oracles of truth. I think at best they can produce facts but I define truth a little differently than that. Besides, I don't think anyone is an infallible source of "truth." And if there's a defining characteristic of a lot of atheists, it's that we don't tend to just take people at their word.

11. overreliance on hearsay and a perception (often wrong) of what most people think.

There's so much irony in here that I frankly couldn't cut through it with a monoblade.

12. an insistence on censoring prayer from the classrom.

Actually no. I just don't think it should be compulsory. It's hardly censorship to insist that people not be compelled to do something.


And, there you have it: the elements of atheistic style according to Conservapedia. I know I feel more enlightened.

Now, some of you are probably feeling left-out. We're not all atheists here and, as such, you may wish you had a style of your own. Well, thanks to Conservapedia, you might as they also have equally superb* articles on Liberal style and Christian syle. Check them out and weep for our future!

And then, just maybe, let's all recognize once more the intrinsic danger of promulgating horrid stereotypes.


* i.e. "craptacular."

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

This really speaks for itself.




Image credit: xkcd.com

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Memory

I find memory to be an interesting thing. I don't mean computer memory, although that's neat too, but rather what's known as "episodic memory." This is, essentially, the kind of memory that allows you to remember who you are, where you've been, what you've done, and so forth. It is, in short, what we usually mean by memory and is in contrast to the skill memory that allows us to ride a bicycle or speak properly. The reason I find episodic memory so interesting is that, in a very real way, it defines who we are.

My interest in this kind of memory really stems from two places. The first place is my sleep pattern. As my wife can tell you, I am given to unusual and rather vivid dreams. Sometimes they're fairly hysterical, but more often they're pretty unsettling. Last night, for example, I "enjoyed" a dream involving Hannibal Lecter. I will decline to go into detail on this, save to say that if the need should arrise a long-handled screwdriver makes a better weapon than a more diminutive type. Dreams of this latter sort can leave me vaguely off for most of a day. The thing is, most mornings I don't remember my dreams of the previous night, but can tell from the contortions my body works itself into that I probably had some interesting ones. What this means, however, is that while at some point my personality and mind was engaged in an unpleasant experience, my complete failure to remember it shields me from any negative after-effects. It is only when I remember the odd dreams that they effect me.

The other reason episodic memory interests me are my experiences with surgery. At different times in my life I have required surgery of various levels of seriousness that has necessitated general anesthesia. For those who have never had the pleasure, going under a general is an extremely disorienting experience because your sense of elapsed time simply... stops. One moment you're on a gurney looking up and, the next, you're on your side in post-op. The first time you go through this it is utterly shocking as in most other forms of unconsciousness there is at least a sense that some sort of time has passed. Not with a general, however. Given my experience with dreaming, this led me to wonder: is it possible that a general anesthetic doesn't actually put you to sleep so deeply you can't feel pain but, instead, just immobilizes you and prevents you from recalling the sugery later? Disquieting, I know, but the implication is that an instance of you experiences the pain of surgery but, because the experience is not remembered, you experience no trauma. Rest assured, I am convinced at this point that anesthetic does not operate in this manner, but the notion illustrates an important point: who, and what, we are is inextricably bound to our memory. A trauma that is forgotten is no longer traumatizing. We are, in effect, what we remember.

This has been on my mind lately because of yesterday's holdiay to honor Martin Luther King Jr. It is, in essence, a day dedicated to preserving the memory of King and the civil rights movement. Yet, as we have recently seen with Hillary Clinton's remarks about civil rights, memory can be a funny thing. Close to a half-century ago, a wide reaching social movement championed by Martin Luther King Jr. succeeded in moving the government to protect more of its citizens than it had been previously. A mass effort of the disenfranchised changed the world but, really, this was no more the work of one man than the Empire State Building. Yet, the response to Clinton's acknowledgement of this was swift condemnation. How dare she imply that King's achivement wasn't so grand, so amazing, that he won the protection of law for African Americans without any support from the president? Well, she dares because she's right. Yet, our memory of that time has been changed, perhaps by our very focus on the one iconic man who played such a role in it.

What will future generations think? Now that government action has been forced out of our memory, will SNCC follow? How about the civil rights marchers? Perhaps a hundred years from now people will speak of how Martin Luther King Jr. said to James Crow, "Let my people go!" and then led African Americans out of the South. Ridiculous? Sure, but no more ridiculous than other embroidered myths passed down from generation to generation. In the end, we are our memory. Our society is what we remember it being. I would prefer we remember that we are a society where ordinary people can combine to accomplish great things, rather than one where great leaders touched by fate single-handedly raise the helpless common man from the grip of tyranny.

And I think Dr. King would prefer we remember it that way, too.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Putting one foot in front of another can get you a lot of places

People who have the slightest interest in computers have probably heard the news about the new Macbook Air from Apple Computers. For those who haven't, it's basically the sexiest new notebook in years. If you don't believe me, check out this short little ad for it:



It's basically a three pound notebook computer that is less than an inch thick when closed, yet still packs a 13.3" LCD screen and a fullsized keyboard. I won't go into the full set of technology tradeoffs they had to make to get to those figures, but the guided tour does an excellent job of walking you through them:



Like Tom my immediate reaction is I want. My second reaction, however, is to wait a year or three until the technology is a little more mature and the hard disk sizes increase. Right now the largest drive you can fit it with is an eighty-gig model. Not bad, but I'm already growing out of the eighty-gig drive I use for a primary on my home machine. Don't ask how much of that is just files for work- the answer is horrifying.

More interesting is the solid state drive option. Basically, Apple has built a hard disk out of what amounts to flash RAM. The result is that you can fit the Air with a drive that has no moving parts. As this computer lacks an optical drive, that means that aside from the keyboard the only moving parts are the cooling fan. That's pretty awesome- especially for plane rides when unexpected turbulence always has a chance of wrecking your drive's platters.

Beyond that, however, it's increasingly clear that we're moving towards the point when it will be practical to reduce the size of a substantial amount of processing and storage capacity to the point where it could be implanted into the human body. No, seriously, hear me out. Imagine for a moment that we could install a socket about the size of a paperback book into your lower back. Into this socket we could insert a sealed package of electronics containing CPUs, hard drives, RAM, and so forth. Once in this socket it could feed audio directly into your auditory nerves and video directly into your optic nerves. We could even interlace the computer's output with your actual vistion, essentially giving you a heads-up display. Control could rely on manipulation of icons with your eyes, subvocalization, even minute muscle movements in the hands. Integrate wireless connectivity and, hell, even a cellphone and you can be connected to online databases anytime, anywhere. If and when technology moves on, no problem- just remove the old module and install a new, more advanced unit. The only permanent parts are the interface socket and its input/output system to the host.

Why would someone do this? Why not? Imagine the advantages if police officers could access and display images of wanted criminals every time they made a traffic stop. Imagine what a visit to the doctor would be like if she could access diagnostic results, search medical databases, and view patient history without needing to turn away from the patient. How about surgeons who could have their normal vision augmented with fluoroscope output. Do you like GPS navigation systems for cars? How about a system you could carry with you that projected visible icons right into your vision so you don't have to look away from the road? For that matter, how about cars that can use your internal computer to project speed, fuel, and status information into your eyes for the same purpose? The possibilities boggle the mind and, like most other computer technologies, won't be fully realized until we start actually using the system.

There would, of course, also be possible downsides. Power would be an issue, most likely requiring a second socket for a battery pack. It might be possible to run the thing on body heat but, really, that would require a hella efficient system. Using body heat for power would also make one pretty hungry after a hard day of computing since you're more or less running your computer on your body's metabolism. Heat would also be an issue- the system might require some sort of active cooling system that could dump heat into your body for removal in the customary way. There would also be the increased dangers from malicious software. Viruses are annoying right now, but a program that could throw static into your vision or hearing while driving is downright dangerous.

As someone who teaches college students, I also shudder to think what all this would do to higher level teaching. How do we teach when our students might be watching us or might be playing sudoku in their virtual vision? For that matter, writing tests that don't rely on rote memorization would become utterly necessary, but that would probably be a good thing for us all. Finally, the divide between the haves and have-nots would only get worse. How does someone without an internal system debate someone who has one?

The possibilities are amazing, as are the dangers, but it'll be interesting to see what happens. The Macbook Air is only a single step towards such a future but, really, one step after another can get you a lot of places.

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

A Conservapedia Two-fer.

As I said yesterday, I recently noticed something on Conservapedia that I thought was noteworthy. You know... aside from their dislike for women. Specifically, I happened to run across this headline:



For those who can't read the image and don't feel like clicking on it to receive an enlarged version, the circled text reads:

Atheists, not content with censoring school prayer, now protest a mere visit by a religious figure to a university. "We inhabitants of the real world need to take every opportunity to expose religious idiocy, and the undue respect accorded to it," one commented. Does anyone think atheism is tolerant?


Wow. I get pretty snarky myself but, really, even I don't argue that we should "take every opportunity to expose religious idiocy." Who are these frisky atheists the Conservapeons are writing about?

Well, as it happens, they are referring to a story about how a number of scientists in Italy are protesting a visit by Pope Benedict XVI because of his stated views on Galileo. Specifically:

Sixty one Italian scientists have signed a letter protesting against a planned visit this week by Pope Benedict XVI to Rome's Sapienza University because of his stated views on Galileo.

In a letter to Renato Guarini, the university rector, the scientists said the visit was "incongruous". The signatories include distinguished physicists such as Andrea Frova, author of a study of Galileo's persecution by the Church, and Carlo Maiani, the recently appointed head of the Italian National Council for Research or CNR.

The letter said scientists felt "offended and humiliated" by a statement made in 1990 by the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - the modern descendant of the Inquisition - suggesting that the trial of Galileo for heresy because of his support for the Copernican system was justified in the context of the time.

The scientists said they hoped the visit by the Pope on Thursday would be cancelled out of respect for the "secular nature of science" and the fact that the university was open to "students of every belief and ideology". Students at the university said they were preparing to welcome the Pope with banners of protest and loud disco music. As a cardinal, Benedict once attacked rock and pop music as the "work of the devil."


As one continues to read the article a number of things become clear including (a) there are a number of individuals in the same University who disagree with the letter and (b) there is absolutely no mention of the religious views of the signatories to the letter. None. So far as I can tell they could be atheists, or Christians, or Buddhists, or even practice Santeria.* So, Conservapedia's claim is based on their (frequently refuted) belief that everyone who works in academia is an atheist or, perhaps more accurately, that everyone they disagree with is an atheist. An additional item of note is that the quote Conservapedia presents doesn't appear in the article at all. Seriously. No participant in this whole deal is, at any time, quoted as saying that religious idiocy must be opposed at every turn. No, instead, the quote comes from a comment left in response to the article by one James Freeman of Cardiff. Seriously:



I don't mind getting criticized for something I'm actually responsible for, and my fellow atheists can be condescending assholes sometimes.** That said, is it really so much to ask that Conservapedia at least try to present things with a modicum of honesty?

As for the protests themselves, I don't know enough about Benedict XVI's views on science generally so I don't have an opinion. On the one hand, I think that the guy should probably be allowed to speak, on the other he has made some iffy statements in the past. Read up on the issue and make your own call if you like- I'm staying out of it.

Since I first noticed all this, however, Conservapedia has continued following this, and other, hot stories about atheists misbehaving. Specifically, check out these two additional headlines:



Again, for folks who don't want to click the image, they are:

Atheists censor Pope's university speech, force him to cancel.

Dinesh D'Souza asks, "Isn't it remarkable that atheists, who did virtually nothing to oppose slavery, condemn Christians, who are the ones who abolished it?"


About the former I can only remark that reading Conservapedia sometimes makes me feel much more powerful than I really am. I mean, to hear them tell it, atheists rule the world, controlling science, government, finance, and so forth with an iron fist. That's a lot better than what journalism or peer reviewed science has to say.

About the latter, I really can't say whether or not atheists opposed slavery if only because when slavery was prevalent in the western world atheism carried an even stronger stigma than it does today. So, you know, even if there was massive opposition to slavery among atheists they likely wouldn't discuss that aspect of it. That said, I think it would be unfair to accuse Christianity of either supporting or opposing slavery. The biblical remarks on the subject are a bit... confused. Historically speaking, as well, many Christian congregations were for slavery before they were against it. I think the most accurate comment would simply be that slavery was more or less a daily reality in the world of Jesus and that Christianity can be either for or against it depending on which parts of the bible receive more weight. I don't think Christianity, or Christians, intrinsically support or oppose slavery.

But, hey, I'm just a damn dirty atheist. What the hell do I know?


* That would be SO awesome.

** As opposed to me, who is a condescending asshole pretty much all of the time.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

This makes me very, very angry.

I was going to bitch in this post about something Conservapedia said about atheists yesterday* but in point of fact I just noticed something else that, frankly, deserves more attention. I refer, specifically, to this:



For those who didn't click on the image, the headline reads:

Think a coed Marines is a good idea? An 8-month pregnant Marine was murdered by a blunt object after a "violent confrontation"; a fellow Marine she had accused of rape is hiding.


Okay, Conservapeons? Are we seriously still having this fucking conversation? Do you really want to go this route? Because, and here's the thing, ponder for a moment the logical chain you're constructing here. A pregnant American soldier was murdered after she accused a fellow soldier of a crime and, basically, you're implying that she was the problem right from the start. More broadly, the problem is that women are allowed to be soldiers at all- if they wouldn't butt-in on the "male arena" of the military, they wouldn't get raped and murdered. As long as we're at it, is this your explanation for sexual harassment? Sexual coercion in the workplace? How about if a boss rapes his female subordinate? Will you come out with a headline asking, "Still think a coed workplace is a good idea?" That's the argument here, right? I suppose it must be since, really, the way you guys talk about it a woman who is raped must have been asking for it. They're all dirty tramps unless they're chaste Christian women who stay home pregnant and barefoot, right?** Why not just put everyone with a womb in a burqa and get it over with?

Maybe it's just me but, really, is it possible that the problem here is the guy who raped and murdered her? Is it possible that the problem is a culture of excessive machismo that views women as little more than sexual organs on legs? Could that, just maybe, be the problem? And for that matter, how about the perspective you're promulgating about men? I am a man and I do not like the implication that I'm too damned stupid and brutish to control myself. Guess what: if I'm playing on a co-ed team I am not suddenly overcome with the irresistible urge to rape the everliving crap out of a female team member. I know too many soldiers who are good, decent people and serve with those of the opposite sex without brutally violating them to believe the horseshit you're spewing. Blaming the victim is an offense to women, but absolving men of responsibility because "boys will be boys" is insulting as hell to men. We are humans, we are capable of controlling ourselves, and we will goddamn well do so or else face the consequences imposed by the rule of law. Period.

I'm sure many of you, Conservapeons, are very good people but right now I am disgusted with the lot of you. The truths about rape are difficult to face and I don't have time for damned cowards like you.


* As it happens they added to it a bit today, but we'll get to that in some other post.

** This is a somewhat unfair depiction of Conservapedia's typical position, but only somewhat.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Challenge MET!

A while back I received a challenge. No, wait, that's not completely accurate. What happened is I offered to write a blog post on the subject of a person's choosing if they won a silly contest of mine. As it happened, the winner was one S.S. Stone and the post she chose was relatively unusual. Rather than have my write a post she, instead, asked that I produce a little bit of art. This art was supposed to, in some way, capture my feelings on some aspect of atheism. Given yesterday's post, this seemed like an appropriate time to unveil my completed work on the subject.

The wait for this has, however, been prolonged and I feel compelled to explain why. I am not an artist. I mean, really, I suck rather hard at drawing and painting. It's not quite as bad as my incompetence at Spanish* but pretty close. As such the dilemma I faced was two-fold: first, I needed an idea that would capture some useful part of my feelings and, second, I needed an idea whose execution was within my meager abilities. Developing an idea that satisfied both requirements turned out to be rather difficult. Having said all this, please keep in mind that I am not a skilled artist. The fairly crude drawing below is, really and truly, a better result than I had anticipated. I'd also like to point out that S.S. Stone did not demand that this somehow capture all of my feelings about my faith but, rather, that it capture some aspect of them.

So, without further ado, proof positive that I was not meant to be an artist:



In line with the original request, let me explain this piece. It is drawn with a sharpie and two highlighters** on a page taken from a peer-reviewed journal article. These seemed to be appropriate materials for someone who is an academic. I employed three colors: black, pink, and yellow. As you might guess from the "art" the pink represents excitement and yellow new knowledge or ideas.

The basic aspect of atheism that I am trying to capture here is that it is a collaborative, constructive endeavour. Wisdom and knowledge are not written down in a single book that contains everything you (supposedly) need to know. Instead, wisdom and knowledge are sought for, earned, and ultimately discarded as the world changes and we change with it. Wisdom is not eternal but, instead, must be continually improved and modified as the world around us continually changes. Knowing and understanding become an endless process of creation and exploration that absorbs not just a single person, but an entire community. Like any birth it can be painful, and arguments and conflicts are a part of the search, but ultimately it is worth it as we open our collective eyes to a bright new world.

I placed this "art" on a journal article because I wanted to make the point that the human world of building, of creating, is part and parcel of this process. As a scientist I advance the search for wisdom by doing research, by arguing with my colleagues, and by sharing what I know with my students. As an artist, S.S. Stone advances this search by trying to express the inexpressible. In this exchange of ideas, of feelings, and of creations the members of our one species produce something far greater than any of us individually and the beauty of that leaves me speechless.***

And there you go.


* True story: My college Spanish professor asked me to stop taking Spanish classes I was so bad at it.

** While not in the original post, S.S. Stone did allow the use of magic markers, which are more or less equivalent to the instruments I chose in my view.

*** No mean task, I know.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

That confusing faith.

I sometimes get asked two questions about what I believe: "Why is it important for you to be an atheist" and "Why is it important for you to talk about being an atheist".* These questions are not easy for me to answer- not so much because I don't have answers, but rather because the questions themselves make me sad. You see, people don't tend to ask devout Christians, or Muslims, or Jews, or Hindus why their faith is important to them. We have a set of cookie-cutter answers provided for us by out society: it reassures us, it makes us feel a part of something larger than ourselves, etc. So, when people ask me these questions it is more or less tantamount to an admission that, from their perspective, there's something a little wrong with me. I can't feel like I'm a part of something bigger than myself, or feel reassured by my atheism in their minds, so why would I voluntarily choose to be a nihilist?

Of course, I'm far from a nihilist (and often regard the nihilism criticism as being more applicable to certain religious perspectives than to atheism) but that doesn't seem to stop people from assuming that I am. There seems to be a widespread confusion about why someone would choose to be atheist and how we can be happy that way. There are even efforts to understand "deconversion,"** or the departure of an individual from a previous faith. Brad Wright, for example, finds this question interesting and has spent a considerable amount of time pondering such issues. For myself, I think the question shouldn't be what drives someone to become an atheist*** but, rather, what would drive someone to remain a theist. My own experience as a Christian turned atheist is that when I honestly started asking why I should remain a Christian, the answers I got were tautological at best. Put another way, shouldn't there be more compelling reasons to continue believing what you were taught from childhood than that you were taught it from childhood?

All that in mind, I have more or less come to the conclusion that I need to do something about this. So, difficult though it may be, I am going to try to express in words over the next few weeks/months why it is important to me to be an atheist, why it is important to me to talk about it, and why being an atheist makes me happy. Note that I didn't say "why I can be happy while being an atheist," but rather, "why being an atheist makes me happy." The simple truth is that I find atheism to be an immensely more satisfying faith than Christianity ever was. My being an atheist is a core part of my being, of my ability to deal with life, and of my happiness. These posts are also not to be interpreted as attempts to convert others. I am not an evangelical atheist, I have no particular interest in converting anyone. If you read what I write and decide to convert, great, if not, great. My goal is not conversion but simply understanding. I like to think that if people understand why I, at least, am atheist they might be more accepting of others who are.

Alas, however, I plan to begin this series of posts some other time. For now, allow me to begin with a pair of primers, if you will. One is a sort of Atheist FAQ from the folks over at RationalWiki that covers some of the major bases. Does it give definitive answers to common questions? No, not really, because atheists are a pretty diverse crowd. Will I give definitive answers to some of these questions? Yes, but those answers will apply solely to me. Other atheists will, of course, be different. Yet, the FAQ does a good job of covering some of the common ground for all atheists. The other primer I would like to point you to is a post by Greta Christina dealing with the issue of atheists and anger. Why do atheists sometimes come across as angry? Why are we sometimes vocal? Why don't we just shut up and feel content with our nice, cozy ghetto? She answers these questions with a thoroughness that will take your breath away:

One of the most common criticisms lobbed at the newly-vocal atheist community is, "Why do you have to be so angry?" So I want to talk about:

1. Why atheists are angry;

2. Why our anger is valid, valuable, and necessary;

And 3. Why it's completely fucked-up to try to take our anger away from us.

So let's start with why we're angry. Or rather -- because this is my blog and I don't presume to speak for all atheists -- why I'm angry.

*****

I'm angry that according to a recent Gallup poll, only 45 percent of Americans would vote for an atheist for President.

I'm angry that atheist conventions have to have extra security, including hand-held metal detectors and bag searches, because of fatwas and death threats.

I'm angry that atheist soldiers -- in the U.S. armed forces -- have had prayer ceremonies pressured on them and atheist meetings broken up by Christian superior officers, in direct violation of the First Amendment. I'm angry that evangelical Christian groups are being given exclusive access to proselytize on military bases -- again in the U.S. armed forces, again in direct violation of the First Amendment. I'm angry that atheist soldiers who are complaining about this are being harassed and are even getting death threats from Christian soldiers and superior officers -- yet again, in the U.S. armed forces. And I'm angry that Christians still say smug, sanctimonious things like, "there are no atheists in foxholes." You know why you're not seeing atheists in foxholes? Because believers are threatening to shoot them if they come out.

I'm angry that the 41st President of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush, said of atheists, in my lifetime, "No, I don't know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God." My President. No, I didn't vote for him, but he was still my President, and he still said that my lack of religious belief meant that I shouldn't be regarded as a citizen.


Her post goes on for quite a while from there, and I encourage you to read it with an open mind. If nothing else, it's a very well-written diatribe.

So, for those who are interested, get ready: the next few months may be an interesting experience for us all. And for those who don't care... well... it's not like you get anything useful out of this blog anyway.


* Sometimes I get asked the infinitely dumber version, "Why is it important to you to talk about your lack of belief." Yeah, right, because atheists don't believe in anything. We're lost in an anomic wasteland. Sure. That's exactly the way I feel.

** Linguistically speaking I find this term problematic since "deconversion" from one faith tends to mean "conversion" to a new one. Or it would if people were more inclined to regard atheism as something other than a perverse limbo state.

*** I love how it's regarded as being equivalent to being driven to drink.

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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

A Public Service Message from Hell.

Regular readers of the blog are aware that I got married this year. This is, of course, a horrifying development for all those who are hoping I never breed but there you have it. What many of you may not realize, however, is that when we got married my wife and I were also given some advice. I don't mean advice from my uncle Lester, I mean advice from the great state of California. This advice was given to us in the form of a handy little booklet that came tucked in with our marriage license:



This is, of course, a booklet* meant to inform us of some basic health information about AIDS testing, nutrition, domestic violence, and so forth. It's a good idea but, unfortunately, is executed horribly- particularly given that the illustrations look like they were provided by a team of deranged elementary schoolers. As a result, when I look at certain pages my interpretations are a little different from what the text would suggest. So, to entertain you and provide a little insight into my bizarre mental state, please enjoy this selection of pages from the booklet with minor modifications of my own.

To start with, the book gives us some advice on choosing our partners:



Definitely sound advice right from the start. Then, the book provides some suggestions about what should be done when you start trying to have children. I'm sure the mothers out there who read my blog will agree whole-heartedly with this advice:



Then we get some useful nutritional advice:



A page or two providing advice from the Corrino dynasty:**



And finally, people, if you learn nothing else from today's exercise, at least learn this:



And with that, I bid you all a fond farewell. My wife and I are leaving on a trip and will be back... sometime. And when that sometime comes, regular blogging will resume. Until then, just try and make do with the rest of the internets. I'm sure you'll find something to do. I mean, hey, I hear they have porn now!

Seriously, I'll be back soon.


* Honestly, my favorite part is the asterisk that informs the reader that the booklet used to be titled "If there are children in your future." I mean, hell, are there that many people who will read this and say, "Damn, I thought it sounded familiar!"

** No idea what the joke is here? Well, read over this and see if you can figure it out but, really, you're either gonna laugh at this or you're not.

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