April 29, 2009

La Grippe

This flu thing--it frightens me. I live in a major population center. I'm already at war with my immune system. I have reason to be scared, a little.

But I won't let people manipulate and exploit that fear, mine or anyone else's. (No, not even you and your prosciutto monopoly, Rick.) This is too important and the consequences too great, both the consequences of panic and the consequences of feeling safe when we're not.

So I read a little news and explanation, from reliable sources. I avoid speculation, my own and other people's. I'm ruthless, perhaps even vicious, with rumors and misinformation. And when I'm threatening to think about it all too much, I sing a little Squirrel Nut Zippers to cut through the tension, albeit not as well as these folks.

La Grippe

There's a full moon howling at the night....

April 28, 2009

Check It Out

While I'm off being disgustingly productive at the things people actually pay me for, I recommend test driving One More Asshole. It's a newish blog, but if you've been reading the comments in the Sonoco thread here, you're already familiar with the author, William, and probably impressed.

Do I agree with William on everything? Oh, hell, no. But he should be lots of fun to argue with.

Go read.

April 27, 2009

Ellison Arrested

It's going to be another busy week, I'm afraid, but this I had to share:

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and four other members of Congress were arrested this morning in front of the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, D.C., as they protested the expulsion of aid groups in Darfur.


Before being led away in handcuffs during the mid-morning protest, Ellison said it's wrong to deprive aid to what he called "the most vulnerable people on our planet."


In prepared remarks he delivered at the embassy, Ellison said he situation Darfur "remains dire and the humanitarian situation has worsened since the March 4 expulsion of aid agencies."

He added, "we implore all countries to demand that the Government of Sudan respect and protect human rights and put an end to the acts of atrocities and crimes against humanity in Darfur."

How do I feel about it? I'll let Max Sparber at Secrets of the City speak for me:

Mr. Ellison, I wanted to write you in regards to your arrest today, and I am sure I am just one of many to write. I am in your district, and I voted for you. I have always been pleased to have you a representative, and have felt you do good work and represent the interests of your constituents fairly and honestly. I was also pleased that Minnesota's Fifth District was not bullied into being frightened of you as a candidate by endless reference to your religion and your relationships with others of your faith, and I think it has been very clear that you are in Congress representing everybody, not just Muslims.

But, before today, I have been satisfied with your work, but not been moved to write. I am writing because, with you taking such a public stand against the expulsion of the humanitarian workers from Darfur, I am no longer merely happy with your work as a Congressman; I am proud of you.

These are the kinds of things that a person who represents me, and who represents Minnesota, should be doing. In this one action today, symbolic though it largely is, Ellison has done more to improve this world than Michele Bachmann has done in the entire last month or, in fact, her entire tenure in office.

April 25, 2009

Atheists Talk--Sunsara Taylor

Sunara Taylor, Away With All Gods
Atheists Talk #0067, Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sunsara Taylor's approach to freedom and liberty of thought includes a logical progression moving humanity from theocratic oppression to a socialist atheism. She has been touring campuses in support of Revolutionary Communist Party USA chair Bob Avakian's book Away With All Gods! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World.

Minnesota Atheists secretary George Kane will be talking to Sunsara Taylor on Atheists Talk this Sunday, April 26th for what certainly should be a controversial show. We invite callers and e-mailers, as Sunsara has proven that she is not afraid to discuss her positions frankly and honestly with those who disagree with her. Exercise your freedom of speech. Question everything. It's the atheist way!

"Atheists Talk" is produced by The Minnesota Atheists. Mike Haubrich, Director. Stephanie Zvan, Host.
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April 24, 2009

What Is an Editor?

For someone with a finely nuanced understanding of science journalism and writing, Bora Z of A Blog Around the Clock demonstrates a remarkably narrow view of what an editor does. True, it may not all be his fault. The notion that editors are little more than gatekeepers with red and blue pencils is widespread.

Of course, this point of view is most prevalent among people who have never worked with an editor. To find it in someone who has worked with academic editors and editors of the anthology he stewards is a bit surprising. I don’t know whether he’s never worked with a good editor (doubtful but sadly possible), hasn’t paid enough attention to the details of that interaction, or is glossing over the knowledge to make a point. Or, knowing Bora, maybe he’s just being provocative and waiting for someone to call him on it.

I’m calling him on it now, not just because I am an editor, but because I’ve had the privilege to work with some good ones.

As Quiche Moraine's editor, I've got a fairly long piece up over there today defending the vocation. There's a bit of discussion going already, starting with a comment from Bora. Go check it out.

April 23, 2009

Quitters Blog

My blogroll is thoroughly in need of an update. One of my favorites is no more, another promising blog dropped off the face of the Earth after the election, and I have tons of stuff I'm following in my reader that isn't on there.

However, rather than wait for me to have the time that will take, I'll point you to DuWayne's new blog now. If you're not reading Traumatized By Truth already, you really should be. Even if you only read it occasionally, you know that he's interested in the treatment of addiction (and in everything else). Recently, however, the topic got even more personal.

I really need to quit smoking. It's not a "I want to quit," because I honestly don't. It's not a "I should quit," because that's obvious, but has done nothing to make it happen before. I need to quit. I need to quit because my kids need me to quit - I really wish that I could say that this is the one that has pushed me over the edge, but to my shame, I would be lying. If that were all it took, I would have quit nearly eight years ago. My continued/improved health and well being requires that I quit - again, if that were enough, I would have quit years ago. What it boils down to now is simple economics. Because as important as the other reasons that I need to quit are, not having the funds to smoke is a pretty solid barrier to my continuing to smoke.

Being a blogger, and the kind of guy who wants to help others, he's started a new blog, Quitters Blog. Being smart about quitting, he doesn't want to do it alone.

Would there be any interest from my ex-smoking readers, as well as those who are trying to or who are planning on quitting, in a blog project for you (and me) to post about our experience? I would love to throw up another blog around here and allow you all to post - with team posting privileges for those who want them.


And actually, I should also note that though I've gotten out of the habit since I resurrected this blog, I am all about having guest posters. I will be somewhat selective about what I post and will admit that my reasons may be pretty arbitrary, but I am all about hearing from you, if you want to post. I do recommend that you ask me before you write the post, so you don't end up writing something that I don't really want - but I really do like the idea of getting some other voices up around here and outside of comments. Finally, please don't assume that because you disagree with me on something, that I won't be willing to post your views - there are some things that I just won't, but that is not a common restriction for me.

So if you've got anything to add on the topic, head on over and tell him so.

April 22, 2009

The French and Saunders Menace

Because everyone should get the chance to laugh as hard as I am tonight.

April 21, 2009

How to Get Your Employees to Unionize

DeLoach said the downturn in the economy started for Sonoco in the second half of 2007 and the company doesn’t expect to see significant improvement in the global economy until the end of 2009.

Cost-cutting measures aimed at positioning the company to better respond to market conditions included closing about 15 manufacturing plants, reducing hours for some employees and eliminating more than 700 positions globally, he said.

“Also, in 2009, we are deferring all wage increases for salaried and hourly employees and temporarily suspending the company’s matching contributions for those employees participating in the company’s 401(K) plan,” DeLoach said. “These actions, while very difficult, are necessary so that we can remain competitive in a dramatically changing marketplace.

Sounds like a familiar story right now, doesn't it? Company in trouble turns to employees for operational savings. There's just one little problem.

Sonoco produced record sales and its second-best base earnings performance ever in 2008, despite the global economic crisis, the company’s chairman, president and chief executive officer told shareholders at their annual meeting Wednesday.


Because of economic conditions, the board decided to keep the quarterly dividend payout at the same level that it was in 2008, DeLoach said, but the board remains committed to its long-term policy of increasing dividends when business conditions allow.

For the year 2008, cash generated from operations totaled $379 million, and while that was down 15 percent from the previous year largely because of changes in working capital, cash flow in 2008 ranked as the third highest in company history, DeLoach said.

By year’s end, Sonoco’s total debt had declined to $690 million versus $850 million at the end of 2007, he said.


Since 2000, the company has returned more than $1 billion in cash to shareholders in the form of dividends and share repurchases, he said.

“Few companies can match the 84 consecutive years that Sonoco has paid dividends to its shareholders,” he said.

Yes, that's from the same article. I've mentioned elsewhere that the key to keeping your employees from organizing is treating them fairly. How fair do you think Sonoco's employees will find it that their pay and benefits are cut in a time of prosperity, while the shareholders, who contribute nothing to the success of the company, not only saw no decrease in their dividend but were considered for an increase?

The next time someone tells you that values are to blame for our screwed up economy, feel free to agree with them. Just make sure you point out it's the corporate values that are at fault.

April 20, 2009

Ellison on the Middle East

I've spent all evening editing, which, as much as I love it, requires that I put my own voice on hold for a bit. While I work on getting that back, I recommend reading two articles from the MinnPost about how my representative, Keith Ellison, is navigating Middle East policy. As the first Muslim in Congress, he faces some additional pressures, but I think he's doing a good job in general.

In an event in March, sponsored by the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee, Ellison talked to the group about the suffering he saw on his trip to both Gaza and — he pointed out with emphasis — Sderot. He repeatedly called for an opening of the crossings into Gaza and for a halt to Israel's settlement expansion, statements that received loud cheers from the audience.

At the same time, Ellison ducked questions from the audience about issuing sanctions against Israel. Instead, he urged the group to "put on the shoes of the person who is Jewish…a person dealing with 2,000 years of perceived stigmatism."

He doesn't have an enviable position, but who among the people actually trying to address these problems does?

April 19, 2009

Harmony and Subversion

Most people my age grew up with parents who listened to the Beatles. I didn't, and it shaped me in some interesting ways. The most obvious is that I don't care much for the Beatles. I do appreciate that they were great songwriters, but I usually find anyone else's arrangements of their songs more interesting than theirs.

The band that most closely took the place in my life that the Beatles filled in friends' lives was the Chad Mitchell Trio (later the Mitchell Trio). They instilled a love of minor-key melodies in me while impairing my sense of pitch for years with the harmonies on songs like this:

Four Strong Winds

But we've been through that a hundred times or more.

They were very political and used both compassion and satire to make their points, sometimes subtly, sometimes not. The material they chose pointed out the hypocrisies on both sides of the political fence.

The Battle Hymn Of The Republic Brought Down to Day

Our might is marching on.

The Draft Dodger Rag

I hate Chou En Lai, and I hope he dies...

They sang about civil rights and the realities of war, commercialization and commodification, political corruption and assassination, global paternalism, history and, of course, love. Understanding what they were singing about was right up there with figuring out Doonesbury for getting myself a political education. They sang songs in several languages. They worked with excellent musicians but never let making beautiful music get in the way of making great songs.

Yeah, knowing the Chad Mitchell Trio is about half of understanding my approach to music and a healthy chunk of understanding my approach to life.

April 18, 2009

Atheists Talk--Roy Speckhardt

Roy Speckhardt, American Humanists Association Annual Convention
Atheists Talk #0066, Sunday, April 19, 2009

Scott Lohman, the President of the Humanists of Minnesota, will be talking to American Humanists Association Executive Director Roy Speckardt. The AHA's 68th annual conference will be in Phoenix from June 5th to June 7th. A member of the Minnesota Atheists will be presented with a special honor at this conference, but we don't want to spoil the surprise. You will need to listen to find out!

The AHA and the HOM are sponsors of Atheists Talk, and we thank them for their support. The mission of the American Humanists Association is to make our society more open and accepting of humanists.

Roy is on the board of The Humanist Institute, an advisory member of both the Secular Student Alliance and the Women's Law and Public Policy Fellowship.

"Atheists Talk" is produced by The Minnesota Atheists. Directed by Mike Haubrich. Hosted by Stephanie Zvan.

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My New Favorite YouTube Channel

"In fairness, Michele Bachmann probably does not have testicles."

"Revolutionaries don't cry! Revolutionaries don't cry!"

Thank you, James.

April 17, 2009

A Letter to the Kid

The other adults in your life aren't blameless either. We've all let you down, including me. Sometimes we've let our own lives distract us. Sometimes we've let ourselves get worn down by the battles necessary to get permission to participate in your life as much as we want to. Sometimes we've let you make us angry despite knowing that was what you were trying to do, or held your behavior to standards we haven't taught you to meet. Sometimes we've just forgotten that your life has taught you to hide your feelings, and we haven't worked hard enough to find out what you were keeping hidden.

I'm sorry for all of that. I would change it if I could. I can't. All I can do is tell you this: I've been there (which we’ll talk about when you can ask all the nosy questions you want), and it only gets better.

It's Friday, which means I've got a new post up at Quiche Moraine. This one's a little different. Somebody very dear to me is in trouble, and there are things she needs to hear, or at least things I need to say. I'm saying them publicly because there are almost certainly others out there who need to hear at least some of the same things.

April 16, 2009

Norm Coleman Is In

...the Urban Dictionary.

Dude 1: I can't believe my brother is still trying to be an olympic swimmer.
Dude 2: Really, isn't he incontinent?
Dude 1: Yeah man. They banned him from the pool. But every morning he keeps trying to sneak in.
Dude 2: That's weak. He wasn't even that great of a swimmer to begin with.
Dude 1: Yeah, the team, the coach and especially the janitors hate him more and more every day. There's no point in continuing this. He's really pulling a Norm Coleman.

(Totally stolen from Laurie.)

And just in case you didn't get enough teabagging jokes yesterday, people are teabagging movie quotes on Twitter. Oh, yeah.

April 15, 2009

Today's Economics Lesson

Tea is an import. The United States produces no appreciable amount of tea. The Boston Tea Party was triggered by duty (i.e., import) taxes. Lipton is owned by Unilever, which is based in London. Nestea is a brand of Nestle, which is Swiss.

So all the teabaggers who went out and partied today? Yeah, not only do they not understand what representation is, they also don't understand that they just spent a day supporting foreign economies.


April 14, 2009

Tarred and Twittered

Yesterday, I talked a bit about the broader implications of amazonfail for censorship on demand. If you read (or reread) the post, you'll find it's full of "I suspect" and "I think." Some of that is me trying not to sound as though I think I'm an anointed prophet, but more of it was a reaction to the pronouncements about amazonfail that I was seeing around me.

I realize I'm surrounded by writers who've had the passive voice beaten out of them, but statements like "Google removed the sales rankings of GLBT books and authors" are somewhat presumptuous in our hacking age. So is a petition that asks for "the rationalisation for allowing sales ratings for explicit books with a heterosexual focus." Even worse are the statements that Amazon was targeting gay writers and readers.

All of these statements were made before Amazon had said anything about what happened, and all of them show the dangers of zero tolerance. Not that zero tolerance is bad in itself, but before we apply it, we should at least know what we're refusing to tolerate:

It has been misreported that the issue was limited to Gay & Lesbian themed titles – in fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica. This problem impacted books not just in the United States but globally. It affected not just sales rank but also had the effect of removing the books from Amazon's main product search.

For more insight into the glitch/programming error that turned an effort to "protect" us from explicit sex into an inability to search large categories of books, see this post with comments from a former Amazon employee. Then see the other comments in that thread and just about any other thread on the subject, or look at the Twitter amazonfail hash tag, and see all the people still insisting Amazon had this planned all along.

See people saying Amazon previously claimed to have been hacked, despite the links to some person on LiveJournal claiming to have hacked them. See people still claim this is Amazon trying to get rid of GLBTQ content, despite reporting in every forum I've seen that make it clear that other categories of books were known to have been affected before Amazon made any statement. See the sweeping away of facts that contradict the "Amazon is evil" narrative.


Look, I was wrong yesterday. As much as I enjoyed my little fantasy about some moralists getting results that were exactly the opposite of those they desired, I'm not going to cling to my ideas about what happened in the face of a contrary explanation that covers all the events that happened, even if I think the solution to either problem is the same.

Why? Because my righteousness and indignation, no matter how good they feel (and they do feel so terribly good) don't actually get anything done on their own. At best, they can serve as a fuel to effective action--if I know enough to be effective. That was a problem in this case, with lots of speculation coming across as information and very few people putting it to the test.

To make it even better, Twitter was the main vector of communication about the Amazon stuff. Twitter is lousy for any communication which takes more than 140 characters; it strips logic leaving us only with reputation capital. The #amazonfail tag got a lot of reputation capital, initially from upset people and later from sheer volume...

But you can't tell from a Twitter post whether or not something's authentic. You gotta do your own research and thinking. Some people do; lots of people don't. No matter what Amazon did or didn't do, intentionally or not, there is absolutely not enough evidence right now to draw any conclusions other than "it's bad that this happened."


At some point we're going to have to figure out how to overcome a thousand years of conditioning: for a very long time, saying something loudly required a great deal of effort, so at least you knew someone really believed what they were saying. These days, no effort at all, but we still have that kneejerk reaction.

No effort required and no information. Today's technology makes it all too easy for the broadcast of righteous anger to become an end in itself, which makes for great peer-bonding and catharsis. Change is harder.

Well, that's not exactly true. It isn't difficult to channel righteous anger into change. Any number of riots have been the direct result of righteous anger applied directly, as have tarrings, featherings, rides on rails and lynchings. It's achieving effective change and justice that are difficult, and the hardest part is waiting for all the information to come in and be sorted through.

Don't underestimate how difficult waiting is, particularly for people who have been waiting for justice all their lives. They have every reason to be upset, even paranoid, if paranoia can be based on experience. I'm upset, and I'm not affected directly. But justice is worth the work and the wait, and the alternatives are not always pleasant, as Jacob Davies noted at Making Light.

Before we rush to decide that Amazon Is Evil and head over their headquarter with pitchforks and burning torches, faces flush with the pleasure of our own righteousness, we had better remember that that same pleasure in presumed righteousness is what brought down all the democracies of the past.

Of course, this is only Amazon. This is only a test. But we had better start learning some lessons about how to handle online democracy, because it's coming down the pike at us fast - in the form of rapid opinion polling, Twitter, blogs, instant messaging, text messaging, email, and ubiquitous mobile phones - and in our rush of enthusiasm for this wonderful opportunity to build a new democracy - and it is a glorious opportunity, believe me when I say that I think that - we had better look at the lessons of the past before we repeat them.

This was just a test. The next one will be real, and people will die as a result of a mob sentiment building on Twitter before an investigation of the facts can take place. Don't laugh. It is coming, faster than you think possible. As I say: this was just a test. The next one will be real.

I want Amazon to fix this yesterday. I want them to create public policies on how they treat what I'm tempted to start calling, "politically sensitive material," so I can determine whether they're a company I want to deal with. I want Amazon to state, very publicly, that they'll treat my friends who are GLBTQ or who write GLBTQ characters or who write erotica with the same respect they'll give to any other reader or writer. Ideally, I want them to recognize that they don't want to be in the business of determining what is or is not offensive.

However, I'll give them a few days to get it all done, particularly with a holiday weekend in there. I'll give them time to investigate and to think about what the find. I'll listen to what they do have to say about the situation and take enough care not to confuse it with things that other people have said. I won't call them evil on the basis of processes and decisions I don't understand unless they continue to make sure I don't have enough information to understand. I hope others will do the same.

I'll also suggest that authors and publishers should take a good, hard look at what they're trading for the ease of working with one big, online retailer and ask that they understand that the problem isn't that Heather Has Two Mommies wouldn't come up in a search. The problem is that any time we set up a situation in which some content is filtered, even if it's just a tiny amount, something will be screened out that shouldn't be. The only way to keep their own work safe from the nannies is to make sure all work is accessible.

Now, do you think that will all fit on Twitter?

April 13, 2009

The End of Offense?

I suspect that someone, somewhere is sitting back, being very smug about the internet eruption that is amazonfail. They think they've shown teh gayz and teh wiminz. They haven't got a clue what they've just done.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, start at Sex in the Public Square, which is just generally a good place to start. Caroline's got a good rundown of the situation in which books with non-explicit GLBTQ romances, nonfiction books on "alternative" sexuality (including sexuality for the disabled), and feminist theory were listed by Amazon as adult and stripped of their sales ranks. This means they didn't show up in searches, making them very difficult to buy.

Aside from issuing a statement that the removal from sales rankings was a glitch and is being fixed, Amazon has been very quiet about the whole problem. Several people have pointed out that the selective list of titles involves makes any purely technical explanation vaguely ridiculous. Over on LiveJournal, however, tehdely offers a theory:

It's obvious Amazon has some sort of automatic mechanism that marks a book as "adult" after too many people have complained about it. It's also obvious that there aren't too many people using this feature, as indicated by the easy availability (and search ranking) of pornography and sex toys and other seemingly "objectionable" materials, otherwise almost all of those items would have been flagged by this point. So somebody is going around and very deliberately flagging only LGBT(QQI)/feminist/survivor content on Amazon until it is unranked and becomes much more difficult to find. To the outside world, this looks like deliberate censorship on the part of Amazon, since Amazon operates the web application in question.

Okay, there's no certain information there, but the idea does make it a little easier to comprehend a WTF situation. Combine concerted action by an outside party with a naive (but fairly standard) and probably automated offensive content policy from the company in question, and you've got instant censorship with no action on the part of the company. In fact, Amazon would even almost be right to consider this a glitch.

The problem for the crusading censors, though, is that this isn't a glitch. This is a system set up to run on trust, and it's been gamed. And in abusing that trust and gaming that system, the censors have cost Amazon badly. Net Effect summarizes the costs to Amazon in terms of publicity so far and in the likely near future, but there are other very important considerations for Amazon.

The company has been working with authors to make Amazon the place to promote their books. Associate accounts give authors a small amount of money on every sale made with one of their links, encouraging them to push readers to Amazon. Amazon makes preorders (which can mean a lot when an author is negotiating the next contract) very simple and available earlier than nearly any other seller. And Amazon offers authors' blogs, fora for writers to interact directly with people who are considering buying their books.

All of those things are great for authors and for Amazon. None of them will make a bit of difference if an author doesn't trust Amazon to keep random whackos from arbitrarily making their books disappear. Authors will find somewhere else to promote themselves.

In other words, the censors are messing with Amazon's money, which changes the game. YouTube has had very little to lose by removing videos tagged as offensive. Flickr has had very little to lose by deleting entire portfolios when someone complains that one picture should have been labeled adult but wasn't. Same with WordPress delisting adult content. With a free service, someone gaming offensive content policies generally only costs the person whose material is removed.

This is different. Amazon has a huge incentive not to be gamed. They need to fix this and quickly. Considering the sales figures of some of the books affected, like Brokeback Mountain and Ellen DeGeneres's autobiography, they have an incentive to fix it by telling the censors to piss off. They can't sell books no one can find.

I wrote last year about the idea of offensiveness and questioned whether it was still a useful concept in a diverse, egalitarian society. This is an excellent example of what I was talking about. What does Amazon do when one group is offended by content and another is offended by censorship? They do what Amazon does--sell books.

I'm hopeful that amazonfail will be the beginning of the end for offensive content policies. I definitely think it will lead toward the elimination of any automated systems for dealing with complaints of this kind at commercial ventures. Considering the cost of dealing with complaints on a case-by-case basis, it's quite reasonable to conclude that this will, in general, result in a liberalization of content. It's just so much easier to say, "We don't censor," than, "We'll look at that book and make a decision. Yes, and that book too. And that one. And...."

It particularly easier when Amazon already has a system in place for showing people what they think they want them to see. "Yes, sir. Just log in and you can click on a button next to any content that offends you. As long as you're logged in, you won't see it anymore."

There is every reason to think that the cost of incidents like amazonfail will push technology companies to make users more responsible for the content that they see while leaving the rest of us alone, which is exactly the opposite of what the censors who are so cluelessly smug today were hoping for. Poor little moralists, but they should have seen it coming.

After all, it's the rest of us who read.

Update: See today's post for Amazon's statement on what actually happened.

April 12, 2009

Night of the Living Christ

Do I really need to tell you that this is perhaps not what you want to listen to if today is a religious holiday for you? Tucked below the fold so it doesn't autoplay for anyone.

For everybody else, I have to add that one of the things I love about Schaffer the Darklord, beyond his sheer geekiness, is the way he takes the ideas behind his songs seriously and follows them as far as they take him. If this guy ever writes an SF novel, I'm so picking it up. The basic idea behind this one is simple:

Jesus is coming back someday, but I suspect his return will be considerably different than fundamentalist Christians predict.

The implementation, though? Well, hear for yourself.

He won't descend from the heavens. He'll arise from the Earth.

Almost Worth the Egg

I didn't know Rube Goldberg celebrated Easter.

April 11, 2009

Atheists Talk--David Eller

David Eller, Atheism Advanced
Atheists Talk #0065 Sunday, April 5, 2009

Dr. David Eller, anthropologist, is an atheist. He has written textbooks on violence and culture, religion and culture, and culture and culture. He has also written very well received popular press books on atheism. He will be our guest on Sunday to talk to Grant Steves about his studies in cultural anthropology and his new book, Atheism Advanced: Further Thoughts of A Freethinker.

Atheism Advanced answers many questions, including: Why must Atheists stop "speaking Christian?" -- not only to prevent religionists from setting the terms of debate but also to prevent them from determining the very thoughts we think? Are there any religions without gods? How are gods created, and are they being manufactured today? Why is science necessarily atheistic? Why must Atheists advance from being simply 'without gods' to being "Discredists," thinkers who reject belief-based reasoning altogether? Includes an anthropology of comparative religion. [From the back cover.]

Produced by Minnesota Atheists. Interview by Grant Steves. Hosted by Stephanie Zvan. Directed by Mike Haubrich.

Podcast Coming Soon!
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Listen to AM 950 KTNF on Sunday at 9 a.m. Central to hear Atheists Talk, produced by Minnesota Atheists. Stream live online. Call the studio at 952-946-6205 or email us at radio@mnatheists.org.

April 10, 2009

Stage Kiss

I almost didn’t get cast. I was friends with the director, Greg, who invited me to read for the part. Then he couldn’t decide whether he liked me in the role or just liked me. Luckily for me, his assistant director liked me too and told him to stop dithering.

As an aside, Greg had a better than average reason to be wary about me. The night we met almost destroyed his reputation on campus.

Get the rest of both stories at Quiche Moraine.

April 09, 2009

Trying to Kill Me

A friend of mine from college just posted this to my wall on Facebook. Aside from, "If I hurt, I share," there's nothing more to be said.

We can have play time in my little playroom.

Are You Reading?

Quiche Moraine, that is.

If you're not, or if you only head that direction when I point you at something I've written, you're missing out. You're missing Ana collecting insights on the economy and things like Pokemon fetish wear. You're missing Mike telling tales on himself and interviewing Minnesota politicians. You're missing Greg telling stories about why he's just not that into music and why a restaurant meal is never just a dinner out.

Then there are our guest writers. They're telling more stories, about losing innocence and friends. Sometimes about Minnesota's historical figures. They're talking about living their art and their ideals. They're asking and answering questions about the whys of the world. They're the reason for Quiche Moraine, and they never disappoint.

We're two months old this week and doing well for a young blog. To celebrate, we're hosting our first roaming carnival today. Go check out the Four Stone Hearth. 4sh is always a cool carnival, and I never fail to learn something reading the entries that I would never have even thought to think of.

April 08, 2009

Enough Already

Because it isn't enough that our governor is an airhead with a pleasant face. Because it isn't enough that he took a stupid no-tax pledge years ago. Because it isn't enough that when we had budget surpluses, he sent it all back despite the infrastructure that needed attention (bridges, anyone?). Because it isn't enough that he championed corporate growth at the expense of local tax revenue with tax-free development zones. Because it isn't enough that he tried to declare that Minnesota didn't need any of the stimulus funds.

Because it isn't enough that all that means every state agency is already strapped for funds and doing its best to find new spending to cut out this year too.

Pawlenty now uses his executive authority to spread out the cost of some of his employees. Currently, departments including corrections, agriculture and veterans affairs are helping pay for the head of Pawlenty's faith-based initiative, five policy specialists, a director of legislative and cabinet affairs, two Washington, D.C., employees and a groundskeeper at the governor's residence.

Under spending bills taking shape in the House, roughly $500,000 would reappear as gubernatorial spending.

The House agriculture and veterans finance panel worked Tuesday on a spending bill that would yank back $33,000 of Pawlenty staffing costs from the Veterans Affairs Department and $10,000 from the Agriculture Department. [emphasis mine]

The head of his faith-based initiative? Enough.

Is it 2010 yet?

Thanks to Brent for the link.

April 07, 2009

Trigger Happy Trigun

So, when you discover that someone has made a Weird Al video using your favorite anime, you really kinda have to share.

You can, however, stop at one video, unless your husband says, "Unless they have 'Amish Paradise.'"


April 06, 2009

Tin Revolutionaries

Apropos of the discussion here and here.

If you ever have to rely on the Second Amendment to save you from a tyrannical government, you've left things too late. Several decades too late, in fact.

I don't know whether you've noticed, but the world has changed since the days of the Revolutionary War. Most of these changes are improvements, such as the availability of clean, safe water and the ability to communicate nearly globally nearly instantly. Some changes, like a globalized food chain, are more a matter of cost improvements. Whatever the reason for the changes, they've come, and dragging behind them have come the changes in our infrastructure to support them.

Changes, not additions. We've dismantled the older, simpler structures that we used to rely on, abandoning redundancy for efficiency. How many people can still draw water from wells if they want to? How many have even a kitchen garden? How much commerce can we still support via unpowered water travel? How many people know what to do about a high fever in the absence of NSAIDs or how to know when a doctor is really needed without referring to the internet or a nurse line?

Not to belittle the sacrifices and hardships of the American revolutionaries, but by virtue of their decentralized infrastructure and economy, they didn't face the same kind of collapse that we would under a modern armed revolutionary scenario. There was a time when the question of who was in power made so little difference to the average citizen (i.e., peasant) that revolution was a game for only nobles and anyone unlucky enough to be drafted into their armies. That time is no more. Any militia that wanted to overthrow our government by armed force would have to be very well-organized indeed in order to avoid a massive humanitarian catastrophe.

They would need to have a plan in place to keep the water flowing, the lights turned on and supplies coming in from outside. (Napoleon's problems in Russia were nothing compared to our global, just-in-time supply organization.) They'd also need to be able to communicate that plan convincingly to the rest of the population. If they didn't, the population would--rightly--view them as nothing more than criminals willing to sacrifice everyone else's lives to further their own cause. The revolutionaries would very quickly be fighting on two fronts.

In other words, in order to be successful, any revolution would have to be so well-organized as to be the thing it wanted to replace. It would have to be a true revolution of the people, even if it were directed from above.

What would a popular revolution look like? In fact, I've seen one take hold during my lifetime. The regressive movement that sought to undo the cultural changes accompanying our switch from an agrarian to an industrial economy and to roll back the economic regulation designed to keep industrialization from reinstituting oligarchy showed the true shape of a modern American revolution. The conservative movement, as they prefer to be known, seized power in this country through the perfectly legal means of making sure they had representatives at every level of government, from schoolteachers to city clerks to the Supreme Court. Nary a gun in sight.

Sure, political and bureaucratic takeover isn't as sexy as a cold, sleek piece of metal that makes noise and holes, but it's the reality. Eric Rudolph didn't change anything for any length of time except his own address. Same with the mountain militias. Same with every idiot who ever shot a government agent performing their duties.

Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols did make a difference, but it was only to persuade others to allow more restrictions in movement around and access to government buildings. They ultimately increased the number of people and vehicles subject to government searches. That wasn't what they were after. That isn't what anyone who points to the Second Amendment is after.

No, the people who have done the most to fight the tyranny of the U.S. government in my lifetime have used other amendments in their cause. They have spoken. They have assembled. They have reported. They have filed suit over unreasonable search and seizure or over unequal treatment.

More recently, they have staged the beginning of a counter-revolution to remove the regressives from power. Again, it was done without guns. It did, however, provide a glimpse of what the American populace thinks of having its infrastructure and economy threatened. Ask McCain or the wave of retiring Republican representatives about the kind of political support offered to anyone associated with a person or movement responsible for jeopardizing people's standard of living. They'll tell you how quickly decades of popularity evaporates and how loudly the hounds bay for blood.

And that's a lesson to which any would-be revolutionary should pay attention.

April 05, 2009

Position Wanted

DrugMonkey asked a question about fantasy races in the comments here that made me realize I've never really written that kind of fantasy. This story is, I think, the closest I've ever come to treating a standard fantasy race in a straightforward way. And even here, I mess with it a bit.

Position Wanted

Charlene stared at the man on the other side of her desk and swallowed hard to keep from drooling. Okay, so from what he was telling her, man wasn't quite the right word, but it was close enough. The differences were only piling fuel on her already blazing hormones.

He was, well, he was perfect. He was tall, but not too tall. He had nicely developed muscles, without running over into the bulgy, veiny look so many men thought made them sexy. He wore his wavy, sooty black hair just long enough that it threatened to look unruly but never did. Even from across her desk, Charlene could see both green and a rich golden brown in his eyes, which were framed by lashes that went perfectly with the hair. His face, hands and wrists could have been molded by a skilled artist, although that artist would have to spend a fortune on materials to capture the living, warm amber of his skin.

He wore sex appeal like good cologne, just enough to be a constant undercurrent without knocking anyone over at ten paces. Human or not, he stood out against the backdrop of her sleek modern office of steel, leather and glass like a bonfire in a snowdrift.

"Right, so you're, ah, looking for a job, you said?" Of course he was; why else would he be at a job placement agency? Charlene felt like an idiot, or a thirteen-year-old with a bad crush, for all the difference there was. "Well, um, what kind of, uh, experience do you have?"

The creature across from her smiled, a long slow smile that told her everything she needed to know about that experience--and maybe more than she was ready to deal with. She shivered, not unpleasantly, and noted with fascination that his teeth were pointed. She wondered what that would mean for...

"Look, we just don't have what anyone would call 'useful' experience. That's our problem."

Charlene shook herself and turned gratefully to the woman, Danielle, who was sitting next to...oh, dear, she hadn't really been paying attention when he told her his name. Tyrell, that was it. But Danielle was still talking.

"There's only one thing we do really well. We were made for it and we've been doing it for centuries. But you humans have developed this sex-on-demand society that's really cutting into our core business."

"No offense, but I find that hard to believe." Charlene gestured across the desk. "I mean, look at you." Danielle was every bit as breathtaking as Tyrell, and Charlene was glad she didn't go for women, or she'd have been completely incoherent dealing with the both of them. Well, there had been that one night in college, but she didn't think it really counted if you were drunk.

Danielle smiled at her, a look very similar to the one Tyrell had just worn, and Charlene felt her cheeks getting warm. She hoped very hard that mind reading was not one of the secondary skills of a succubus.

"I won't say we're not worth it, but we're expensive. How many people do you know who would trade their souls for sex these days," Danielle's smile got broader, "even really good sex, when sex is everywhere?"

Tyrell chimed in. "There's still some demand in repressive religious circles and a couple of other groups, but for the most part, we're obsolete. And Lucifer's getting tired of a bunch of bored incubi and succubi sitting around Hell, contributing nothing to the economy. He's threatened to kick us all out, make us fend for ourselves."

Charlene was having a tough time wrapping her brain around the whole concept of demons in her office. She'd have felt like she ought to be looking for the hidden cameras, except that she couldn't make herself doubt them any more than she could look away from them. Since she considered herself an ardent skeptic, that was downright unheard of, even when her libido was involved. Of course, they could be doing something to make her believe them, but that would still mean they really were something way out of the ordinary. And there were the teeth and that slightly smoky scent she could only catch when she wasn't trying.

So, as hard as the situation was to accept, she'd keep going until some producer popped out of nowhere and asked her to sign a release form. After all, her job was to understand the unique needs and situations of her clients, and she prided herself on being very good at her job. "So that's why you're here."

"Right. We're the scouts, you might say. In recognition of our long and fruitful service," Charlene's breath caught as Tyrell winked slowly, "His Unholiness decided to give us a little time to figure out what kind of place we could make for ourselves up here before giving us all the boot."

"We've been looking for a while," Danielle said, "tried a couple of jobs, but they didn't really work out, which is why we decided to come here."

Okay, that was territory where Charlene was on firmer ground. She gave herself a mental shake. Come on, girl. You're the pro here. "So, what have you tried and why didn't it work?"

Danielle shrugged. "Hooking was the obvious first try, but if you'll believe it, almost no one even tried to pick us up on the street."

Charlene didn't have to think very hard to come up with a plausible explanation. "You're gorgeous, proud and healthy. If you're out there, there's either something very wrong with you, or you're bait."

"You could be right. We tried the houses, too," Danielle continued. "Things were a little better."

"So why aren't you still there?"

Tyrell tipped his head to one side. "Partially, I'm not sure that what we offer was what everyone was looking for."

Danielle nodded. "I've seen a grown man reduced to tears because Tyrell did everything he demanded, but did it with dignity. We don't do degradation well, on either side of the equation. That cuts out a certain number of customers. We did better with people who just wanted to try something different."

"And the regulars," Tyrell continued, "although maybe not in the way any house would want. I don't know how many times one of the quiet, polite ones would come in--early, so no one would have to wait for them--and talk to us in the lounge to pass the time. A lot of the time, the next appointment would be with one of us."

"Too much of the time." Danielle shook her head. "Stealing regulars is not good for morale. We lost most of our places that way."

Charlene wasn't in the habit of recommending prostitution to her clients, but a few years counseling had taught her not to be judgmental about what jobs were going to work. "Have you considered opening a house yourselves? There are even places where it's legal."

Danielle and Tyrell looked at each other for a long moment. Finally Danielle nodded.

Tyrell turned back to Charlene. "There's something you should know if you're going to help us. Like most orders of angels and demons, we were built for obedience. We weren't really created to be our own bosses. It's...uncomfortable at best."

Charlene nodded, making a note on her legal pad. "No big deal. Lots of people are like that, too. Have you tried any other jobs?"

"We tried porn, but that didn't work out either." Danielle shook her head.

"Although it does have the advantage of occasionally paying in souls, that's really only if you work behind the camera. And to be honest, we..." Tyrell shrugged--rippling the muscles across his chest in the most fascinating way--and looked embarrassed. "Well, we don't compare to you humans in some respects."

Charlene found herself trying to imagine how Tyrell could possibly, hmm--not measure up. She failed dramatically. "What do you mean?"

"We just aren't that creative."


Danielle asked, "Have you watched much porn?"

Charlene blushed again. She was almost getting used to it. She was profoundly grateful just then for a private office. "I, um, I've seen some."

Danielle's eyes twinkled. "Then you've probably noticed that most of it's not primarily, or even particularly, about physically pleasurable sex."

Charlene thought about it and eventually had to concede that Danielle was right. The guys she knew who liked watching porn, or at least who admitted to it, weren't lacking for physical pleasure. She thought she could be pretty sure of that.

"We're built for pleasure, pleasure-oriented." Danielle uncrossed and recrossed her legs slowly, emphasizing her point. "We're at our best when providing pleasure that has been labeled taboo. We're not so good at thinking something might be pleasurable just because it is taboo."

"Okay, I think I understand that, enough to cross the possibility off our list anyway. Did you try in front of the camera?"

Tyrell laughed. "Oh, did we. It was disastrous. Danielle was a complete loss."

Danielle looked grumpy. "I just did what I do. It's not my fault that cameramen are more interested in multiple angles and hundreds of feet of footage than capturing true ecstasy on film. Tyrell really wasn't any better in the long run."

Tyrell abruptly stopped laughing. "I did just fine in front of the camera." His voice was tight.

"Yeah. So did I. But at least my partners, hasty though they may have been, didn't cry and cling to me after they were done. And none of them walked off the set announcing their intentions of leaving the business and heading back home."

"No, they just never came back after lunch!"

Charlene decided the situation was getting out of hand. "Hey, hey, hey!" They both looked at her. "Are you telling me that all the other, uh, actors you worked with quit?"

Danielle shook her head. "Not all of them. A bunch really wanted to stay and work with us more. But enough usually left to stop filming."

Tyrell jumped in. "A couple of times it was just us left, though, and that...well, it doesn't work."

Charlene blinked. She was pretty sure that was more than she needed to know.

"Same thing happened on every set," Danielle added. "We got a reputation pretty quickly, which meant the end of that work. That was when we decided we could use some help. So here we are."

"Right." Charlene looked at her clients, trying to hide her awe. This was definitely the oddest situation she'd been in as a career counselor. If this worked out, she was going to have to write an article and shop it around to the professional journals. Or maybe not. She still didn't quite believe the whole thing, and she had the evidence on the other side of her desk.

"Well, I haven't had a chance to look at your aptitude or personality scores yet, but I do have one immediate suggestion." Tyrell and Danielle leaned forward. "Have you considered modeling?"

They both looked dubious, but it was Tyrell who spoke. "I don't know. We talked about it, but the trend these days seems to be away from 'desirable' models. Not always, but enough that we're not sure we'd fit in. Scrawny works. Odd is definitely better than beautiful. I mean, look at the runways. All you see are thundering herds of adolescent colts with deadly hipbones."

"True, I guess." Charlene hadn't really thought much about it before. She looked from one face to the other. If anything counted as perfect, they did. Both of them had that same beautiful proportioning and coloring. Both of them.... "But I was thinking of pairing you up."

She leaned over her desk as she warmed to the idea. "I don't think you could ask for a better gimmick than the two of you together. Among people, at least, your kind of perfection is incredibly rare in a single person, much less a matched set. Plenty of twins and triplets have had careers based on a lot less."

Danielle looked thoughtful, tapping her finger against her pursed lips. "It could work."

Charlene grinned, relaxed and at ease for the first time since they had entered her office. "Not to discount my skills, but it could work so well that I'm surprised you didn't think of it."

Tyrell appeared to still be thinking hard and spoke distractedly. "I'm not. It's hard for us to think of ourselves as a rarity. This is what we all look like."

Charlene's jaw dropped. "All the incubi and succubi look like you two?"

That brought Tyrell back to the present. "All incubi, all succubi. All the angels--lofty and fallen--identical. You're looking at the product of an extremely efficient creator. All of the Image-created came from the same mold. We only differ by size, really, and gender when we have any."

Charlene's groping brain settled on old Sunday school lessons. "But then...what about...I mean..." She forced herself to close her mouth and eyes and think for a moment. When she decided she was ready for another assault on her reality, she opened them. Pointing at Danielle, she demanded, "Then why don't I look like that?"

"You don't want to."

"I don't what?!" Charlene realized she had shrieked that last bit and clamped her mouth shut. She might have a closed door, but her office didn't have the thickest walls.

Danielle sighed. "Tyrell, play fair." She turned to Charlene. "What Tyrell means is that you don't want to look like your boyfriend's last girlfriend, or your neighbor, or your receptionist."

Charlene made the effort to speak quietly. "I don't get it."

"Humanity looked exactly like this right up until the fruit. But it didn't take long after that for you to decide that individuality beat the heck out of transcendent beauty."

Charlene knew she wasn't bad looking. Short, but kind of leggy. Fit without being scrawny. She had eyes that wavered between gray and blue depending on her mood. Her hair was straight and a dark brown that bleached to warmer tones in the sun. It made her pale skin look paler, really bringing out the dozen or so freckles that dotted her nose and cheeks. Plenty of people considered her downright cute. But somehow it had never seemed like quite enough.

She sat quietly and estimated the money she'd spent in her life on things like concealer and push-up bras, the time she'd spent trying on swimsuits or with her eyes and nose full of perm solution. She stared at her acrylic nails, so artificial and still falling short of Danielle's natural ones, and allowed herself a moment to curse her overly independent ancestors.

"If it helps," Danielle's voice was soft, "I've been wanting freckles for about three thousand years."

Charlene looked up. Danielle and Tyrell's faces were both full of sympathy. She looked away. Her eyes fell on her Rolodex and she picked it up. Who's counseling whom, here? She took a deep breath. "Nah, it'd spoil the look. Now, about this modeling stuff. I have a friend who's an agent and is always looking for fresh faces. Should I give him a call?"


The modeling worked out well at first, and Charlene followed the careers of her unusual clients with interest. Leon, her agent friend, snapped them up as quickly as she thought he would. He had their teeth capped and set them up for a perfume campaign and two magazine covers by the time she called him to check in two weeks later.

"They're perfect! They're naturals." Leon was almost shouting, but Charlene was used to his constant enthusiasm. It was one of the reasons she'd suggested he go into promotions.

"I'm not looking to hire them, Leon. But tell me straight: do you think they're going to do well at this?"

"Charlie, honey! At the rate they're going, they'll be thoroughly overexposed in a year and a half, but they'll be able to retire about six months before then."

Charlene sighed and Leon continued at a lower volume and slower pace. "I know. I think all my kids are perfect--I have to. But these kids really are the best I've seen. They were perfect in our studio shots--listened to the photographer, knew how to pose, and just about melted the lens. Everyone who's seen them or the pictures wants a piece of them, but I'm doing well by them, using the competing names to boost their prices."

Leon's volume rose again. "Charlie, I swear, I owe you dinner at least. If this goes the way it should, I may owe you diamonds."

"Leon, I hate diamonds. Buy me rubies instead."

"Anything you want, honey." Leon chuckled. "As long as these kids don't crack in our warped little world, I should have plenty to spare."

"I don't think that'll be a problem." Charlene was pretty sure that anyone who'd spent however many thousand years working in Hell could probably handle themselves at a few loud parties. She pictured Leon's face if she were to tell him the age of his "kids." She tallied the modeling job in her success column.

Tyrell and Danielle were enjoying themselves too, although they still had reservations.

"This is going really well for Danielle and me, but what about the rest of us?" Tyrell asked when Charlene called to get their opinion of the job.

"The rest of you?"

"Yeah. We're only the advance guard, remember? How many identical people do you think the modeling world can support?"

"Hmm, good point." Charlene drummed her fingers on her desk. "How many of you are there?"

"A little under eight hundred."

"Yeesh!" Charlene sighed. "Okay, I'll see what I can come up with, but this is going to take time."

"No problem. We've got some, plenty by your reckoning."

When Charlene got off the phone, she turned her attention to her new problem. She'd never been asked to find jobs for eight hundred people at once before, but it shouldn't be too hard. All she needed to do was find a few professions that would suit one person, really. Danielle and Tyrell had identical profiles, so it was safe to assume that the rest of them would, too. Tyrell had assured her that they would take care of the problem of spreading themselves out across the globe, so as long as she stayed with more low-profile professions, having eight hundred clones shouldn't be an issue for any of them.

But the demons were a little odd in many respects, and Charlene still didn't have a very long list a few months later, when she got a call from Leon.

"Charlie, honey, it's your kids. They're killing me."

Charlene wasn't impressed. "What's the matter, Leon? You getting too much work to handle?"

"Oh, I wish." Charlene sat up. That wasn't what she expected to hear.

"What's wrong? I thought you told me they were great, that everybody wanted them."

"They are. They did. And that seems to be the problem. Everybody wants them."

Charlene wasn't by nature the most patient person, and she wondered if Leon knew just how lucky he was to be on the other end of a phone line. "And that means what exactly?" She asked the question slowly and carefully, as though she were speaking to a child.

Leon had his faults, but he wasn't stupid. The answer that came back was, if anything, slower than hers. "That means, honey, that when they're on the cover of a magazine, everybody is spending their time looking at the cover. They don't spend much time with the ads inside. It means that when they've done a perfume spot, people are asking the sales clerks for copies of the poster, not samples of the perfume."

"Oh." Charlene understood the implications immediately. Modeling, as much as some might like to think so, wasn't about pictures of pretty people. It was about selling product. Models who didn't sell the product were not going to have long careers.

Charlene racked her brains for ways in which Danielle and Tyrell could be the product, rather than competing with it. Leon had probably already thought of them, but she had to ask.

"What about calendars?"

"We've got three coming out this fall, one for each of them and one for both. There'll be posters, too. But unfortunately, none of those make much money on their own. Most models use them to get popularity figures to jack up prices on their endorsements." Leon sighed, and Charlene wanted to follow suit, but she wasn't willing to give up yet. She wasn't used to her great ideas turning out this badly.

"Have you tried sending them out for auditions?"

"I have. I have. I had no problem getting them tons. They charm the pants right off directors and producers at parties, but put somebody else's words in their mouths and they're sticks."

Charlene gave up. For the time being, at least, she was defeated.

She put off calling Tyrell and Danielle. She'd never told a client before that they were fired from a job she'd helped them get. Of course, she didn't usually network folks straight into a job after the first meeting. But it still hurt.

Finally, she cursed herself for a coward and picked up the phone. "Danielle? Hi. It's Charlene. You know that list of jobs I've been working on? Well..."


Charlene was feeling desperate. She was spending too much time on the demons' problem. It was cutting into the number of other people she could see, and worse, the amount of attention she could give any problem but this one. Her cat was beginning to pretend she didn't exist even when she was home. She was desperately glad she was between boyfriends.

Danielle and Tyrell were well on their way to becoming her life's work, but their odd mix of personality and aptitude scores severely limited the number of jobs she was willing to send them out for. Tyrell had been right about them not being very creative. They didn't have a remarkable talent for anything (but one, Charlene reminded herself), and she was leery of recommending time-consuming training until she was sure she had a field they'd do well in.

The jobs they'd tried that didn't require advanced skills had only strengthened her resolve on that point. Retail had been a repeat of their modeling experiences--lots of attention and no sales. As waitstaff and bartenders, they'd found themselves being pulled in multiple directions at once, as everyone wanted to monopolize their attention. Again, very poor sales.

Finally Charlene realized there was one sex-related profession they hadn't explored. She didn't know of any strip clubs that offered amateur nights for men, and she didn't have a clue who to ask, so Danielle got to solo as guinea pig this time.

Charlene decided to come along. She'd never been to a strip club, and she was curious. Besides, she hadn't really seen her clients' abilities in action, and she wanted to know what she was dealing with. And as long as she was spending all her free time on their problem, she might as well socialize with them a bit. For demons, they were awfully nice people.

She didn't know what she'd expected, but the club wasn't much different from a regular bar. In fact, it was swankier than The Depot, the bar she usually went to. There were differences, of course--she was definitely in the minority as a woman and she didn't remember a stage with mirrors and a pole on it at any other bar she'd been to. As she sat at a table with Tyrell, she noticed that there was a lot less socializing going on than at The Depot. Maybe a strip club didn't have regulars, or maybe talking to each other would be an admission that they were regulars.

Charlene expected to be uncomfortable, but Tyrell kept the conversation flowing easily until the dancing started.

If you could call it dancing. There was a lot of strutting and posing, but Charlene didn't see much that she considered dancing. But the men in the club were doing a fair amount of hooting and whistling, so Charlene didn't think her opinion was particularly important under the circumstances.

She glanced over at Tyrell to see what his reaction was. He was watching with a polite, noncommittal expression--professional, Charlene thought. He certainly didn't seem as put off as Charlene felt, and when one "dancer" tripped on her five-inch heels, he looked sympathetic. Charlene just thought the woman ought to learn to walk in the things before she tried dancing.

Finally, it was Danielle's turn. Instead of the loud bass-driven rock that played for most of the women, Charlene heard something classical. It was slow and slightly ominous. She thought she'd heard it before, but she couldn't place it.

Danielle stepped out in a short knit skirt and a sleeveless button-up blouse. Her long hair was loose and wavy. She was wearing heels as tall as any Charlene had seen that night, but the first thing she did was take them off. Lifting one leg so her foot was even with her eyes, she unbuckled and removed a shoe, then did the same with the other. Standing in one place, she then slowly unbuttoned the blouse in time to the music and let it drop. She wasn't wearing a bra, and her breasts made Charlene curse her willful ancestors again. Then Danielle lifted the skirt off over her head and stood naked on the stage.

She started to dance. Charlene let out her breath and only then realized she'd been holding it. The room was silent except for the music. Charlene looked around. Everyone was sitting still, staring intently at the stage. She didn't blame them, but she guessed it wasn't the result she'd been looking for.

She turned back and was caught up in Danielle's dance. It wasn't anything like the other strippers' acts. Every move was slow and languorous--no bumping and grinding--but the whole thing reeked of sex. Graceful gestures toward her audience signaled acceptance. Those toward her own body promised ecstasy.

Danielle made her way to the pole at the center of the stage, but she didn't grab it. Instead, she danced around it without ever quite touching it, circling it in motions that eventually brought her to the floor, lying on her stomach, facing the audience with the pole between her arms. She rolled over with her legs folded under her and tucked her hands under her hair. She stood up in a smooth backbend, her hair and hands wrapping the pole gently and brushing from the floor to well above her head.

The club erupted as most of the men rushed the stage. Charlene had only time to scream, "Danielle!" before she found herself lifted out of her chair. Then she was holding on for dear life.

She was shaking when Tyrell set her down outside, and she kept her hold on his shirt. He put an arm around her to steady her, and she leaned into him with her head against his chest. She took deep breaths, trying to calm down.

It didn't work, and it didn't take Charlene long to figure out why. That lovely, vaguely smoky smell that she had just caught in her office was undiluted here. And the body that had given her so many difficulties on the other side of a desk was pressed full length against her. She tried not to whimper.

Charlene felt her hands start to unclench and tightened them back up quickly. She didn't know where they'd go if she let them, although she had plenty of ideas. She felt lightheaded and weak. For the first time, she knew "dizzy with desire" wasn't just a cliche.

The only problem was that Tyrell was her client. And while she could tell herself that he wasn't like her other clients, that he'd been created for just this, that he wasn't even human, he was still a client. She didn't, didn't, didn't sleep with clients--not even just this once. Not even when he was so wonderfully close. Not even....

Her hands stayed locked on Tyrell's shirt while she tried to decide which way she'd jump if she let go.

Her knuckles were starting to ache. She couldn't stay like this. Her knees would give out soon. Charlene debated which of the two options she'd eventually be strong enough, or weak enough, to take. She hadn't come close to deciding when she heard Danielle's voice.

"You two look cozy. No injuries, then?"

Charlene flung herself away from Tyrell, trying to put as much distance as politely possible between them. She could feel that she was flushed. "Danielle! Are you okay? I...I'm sorry."

Danielle gave a Tyrell long look and Charlene a short wink before answering. "Don't be. I move a little faster than you do. I was dressed and heading out the door before anyone even figured out how to get backstage. But I think that's another job we can rule out."

Charlene snorted. "I think so." She wasn't feeling very clearheaded and wasn't up to trying to come up with something else right away, but one thought did occur to her. "You know, if you two could find a way to bottle that scent, you wouldn't have to worry about working."

Tyrell lifted his eyebrows. "Scent?"

"Never mind." Charlene sighed. "Back to work then."


If she couldn't figure out a way to turn that magnetism into a productive job, at least it made getting them hired a snap. Tyrell and Danielle were popular as personal assistants--until they accompanied their bosses out in public. Then they discovered how much people who could afford that kind of assistant enjoyed being upstaged.

Productivity slowed in any office they walked into, and gossip and backstabbing soared. Besides, they couldn't type. All their coordination and skill seemed to be as specialized as they were. She crossed commercial driving off her list of possibilities with a shudder. Production line jobs were out for the same reasons, although she wasn't sure who would be injured first, the demons or their distracted coworkers.

Charlene became progressively more depressed as the pool of possible careers dwindled. She dreaded calling Tyrell and Danielle for her periodic progress checks, afraid to hear that they'd lost another job, or to tell them that she hadn't found anything new for them to try that week. She started to hate the phone, even though she always felt better by the end of a conversation with them.

It didn't help that she was beginning to think of them as friends. She'd done some research on their history and lore as background for her search, but she really couldn't take their "demonic" reputation seriously. She tended to chalk it up to the sexual views of those puritanical societies they said they'd always done well in. Talking to them over the phone, she didn't have the distraction of their appearance to keep her from noticing how kind they were, how patient with her lack of progress. They were funny, too, with an interesting perspective on humanity and thousands of years of observations. But that meant that she was now failing her friends, instead of just her clients.

This week was particularly bad. It was the third week in a row they'd been out of work, and she didn't have anything for them. She'd hit a wall on new ideas. She'd left the call for her last thing that day, and she still hadn't worked herself up to it by the end of office hours. She sat and looked at the phone for so long that her vision went gray. Then she shook herself and picked it up.

When the dial tone changed to the annoying seesaw tones that told her she'd left the phone off the hook too long, she hung it up and paced. There had to be a solution out there somewhere, and she despised herself for not being able to find it. This was what she'd studied to do, where she had invested her time and energy. She was supposed to be good at it. Until now, she'd thought she was good, but maybe it was time to face the fact that she wasn't good enough and send them to someone better.

She was equally happy and annoyed at the ringing that interrupted her musings. She picked up the phone.

"Hey there," Tyrell's soothing voice came across the line. "I thought I'd check in with you since we hadn't heard from you yet. Everything okay over there?"

Charlene looked at the clock. It was seven. She suddenly noticed how quiet the office was and realized she'd just lost two hours to fruitless pacing and cowardice. Her patience and belief in herself needed only that last push to collapse.

"No, Tyrell. I'm sorry," She sobbed. "Everything isn't okay over here."

"Charlene, what's the matter?"

"Oh, I'm hopeless, Tyrell. All my training, my experience--useless. All I'm good for is sending you off to be yelled at and fired by a new boss."

"Whoa, whoa! Slow down." He waited while Charlene struggled to regain her composure. "What brought this on?"

"It's...I'm...I just can't do this. I hate letting you down like this, but I just can't."

"I understand. It's okay. You have other clients. You can't devote all your time to us." Tyrell's tones were so calming that Charlene could feel a little of her tension melt as she listened to them. It took her a moment to register what he'd said.

"What? No! I'd spend all my time getting you and Danielle the right job if I thought it would do any good. But I don't think I'm...well, I'm not good enough to find you what you need." The admission cost her, and she waited for confirmation from the other end of the line. What came instead surprised her.

Tyrell laughed so loudly Charlene had to hold the phone away from her ear and so long that she was starting to feel annoyed by the time he was coherent.

"Oh, I'm sorry," Tyrell said and pealed into laughter again. This bout was shorter, but Charlene was definitely irritated now.

"What's so funny?" she demanded.

"Sorry, sorry." Tyrell took a deep breath. "Okay, how many jobs have you found for us?"

"A couple dozen, I guess, but none of them--"

"Right. You've found us two dozen possible occupations, regardless of their final suitability." Tyrell chuckled again. "Do you want to make a guess at how many uses Lucifer has found for us?"


"One. Since our creation, he's managed to find exactly one use for us, and it's what he made us for. You're beating the devil twenty to one and you think you're no good?!" Tyrell lost it again, but Charlene was too busy thinking to care.

Maybe her expectations were unrealistic. After all, she didn't exactly have reference books on occupations suitable for supernatural beings, and she'd certainly never seen a class offered on the topic. Come on, girl, she told herself. The fact that you've been immune to failing at work before doesn't mean you could keep it up forever. You ought to be grateful it took something this weird to do it.

She started chuckling herself, which sent Tyrell off once more. She felt a little lightheaded from too much oxygen by the time they were done but much happier. They had a good chat about the fun that he and Danielle were having trying to fit in as normal humans.

When they were ready to get off the phone, Tyrell asked, "Feeling better?"

"Much. You couldn't have said anything better to help me put everything into perspective. I should have expected it though."


Charlene shrugged, even though she knew Tyrell couldn't see it. "You always do, both of you. You always seem to know just what to say when I'm feeling discouraged. You should be--" She clamped her mouth shut and thought hard.

"Should be what, Charlene?" Tyrell sounded concerned. "Are you still okay?"

"Fine. I just need to.... Can I call you back?"

"Uh, sure. One of us will be around all evening."

"Okay. I'll talk to you soon."

"Okay. Bye."

Charlene changed her mind. "No, wait!"

"What?" He sounded confused.

"Just a couple of quick questions." Charlene tried to slow her brain down long enough to pick one. "How would you feel about going to school for a while?"

"We'd be fine with it, but would it really be the classwork we'd need or just the degree?"

"Maybe some classwork, but mostly the degree, I think," Charlene decided. "I'd say you've certainly got the talent."

"That's no problem then. With a little help from below, we can have degrees from any university you want, and they'll stand up under checking. What's up?"

"I'm not quite ready to say." Charlene thought again. There was one issue that could derail her plan right off. "I don't like to have to ask this. I think I know the answer, but if I don't ask, I'll hate myself. Is there any reason that, as demons, you'd have a problem doing something actively good for people?"

Tyrell was silent. Charlene started to wonder if she was going to have to throw out another idea, but he finally answered. "I don't think there should be any problem. Lucifer might not care for it much, but that would solve our problem just as well."


"It was his idea to have us support ourselves. If he doesn't like it, he can always go back to status quo."

"Oh." Charlene felt a little flat, as though some of her triumph had been leached away.

Her feelings must have communicated themselves to Tyrell. His voice was warm with humor when he spoke. "Of course, he tends to be a little self-centered. It would probably take him a couple hundred years to notice and then only if we really have an impact. I take it you have another idea?"

"I do, but I'm not willing to share it just yet. Let me do a little more research. I don't want to get anyone's hopes up prematurely, least of all mine."

"I'm sure it will be good," Tyrell said. "Call us when you're ready."

When Charlene got off the phone, she started grabbing reference books. Education checked out about how she thought it would. If anything, the standards were lower than she thought. A simple B.A. would work.

The hours were perfect, with most starting positions being at night. The pay was livable for people, although she'd never quite gotten a handle on what the demons needed for living arrangements. The personality types who tended to do best and be happiest were almost identical to Tyrell and Danielle's. Best of all--from her perspective--there was no lack of openings across the globe.

What about all the problems they've run into? she reminded herself sternly. Well, the biggest by far was the distraction that their looks caused. That shouldn't be an issue here. They'd need privacy from their coworkers for what they'd be doing, and their clients would never see them. And Tyrell had just answered her most serious misgiving.

She certainly didn't have to worry about lack of skills. Anything they hadn't had built into them at their creation, they seem to have learned just fine over the millennium. In fact...Charlene stopped to mull over a new idea.

When she ran out of unanswered objections, Charlene called the demons back. This time she got Danielle.

"So, I hear you've got a new idea for us."

Danielle's voice was warm and supportive, bolstering Charlene's confidence in her idea. "I do; tell me what you think. How would you like to be a phone counselor, probably a crisis counselor?"

"I think..." Danielle was silent for a moment. Charlene held her breath. "I think I'd like that." She sounded surprised.

Charlene smiled to herself. Of course you would. If I'm right, this is part of what you were made for. She wondered if Danielle would be able to tell her, if she asked, how many people had sold their souls over the years, not for forbidden sex, but for pillow talk, for having that sympathetic ear and voice beside them in the darkest parts of the night.

Not that she'd mention it. No sense giving them any ideas. They might be friends, but they were still demons, after all.

Charlene did a little happy dance sitting in her chair. The demons had chosen her for the hardest job of her life, and she'd done it. She knew she had, even if she could never tell anyone but the demons. Even if she could never tell them the whole story. She'd done it.

Aloud, though her eyes twinkled as she said it, she said only, "I thought you might."
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April 04, 2009

Atheists Talk--Jerry Dincin

Jerry Dincin, "Final Exit Network"
Atheists Talk #0064 Sunday, April 5, 2009

The mission of the Final Exit Network is to serve people who are suffering intolerably from irreversible conditions that have become more than they can bear. The Network was recently raided and their funds confiscated by the State of Georgia under the false accusation that they have been assisting suicide. This is something they most emphatically do not do. Jerry Dincin is the president of the Final Exit Network and is the Minnesota Atheists' scheduled speaker for our April 19th Monthly Members' Meeting.

Jerry will explain the purpose of this educational organization, their goals and the circumstances leading to this false legal accusation. George Kane, the Secretary of the Minnesota Atheists, will ask Jerry for keen insights into the ethics of exit education, the interference into the right-to-die by the religious "moral" organizations and about plans to fight this legal persecution.

Produced by Minnesota Atheists. Interview by George Kane. Hosted by Stephanie Zvan. Directed by Mike Haubrich.

Podcast Coming Soon!
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