June 29, 2009

CONvergence Schedule

This weekend is CONvergence. Here's where to find me, subject to change, of course. This is an SF convention.

Meet My Invisible Friends
Friday, 12:30 p.m.
Are you replacing your real friends with virtual ones? What are the RAMifications of social networking websites?
Annie Lynsen, Naomi Kritzer, Stephanie Zvan

Big Brother: Advent of 1984
Sunday, 12:30 p.m.
Is privacy as we know it gone? How does privacy work in this connected age?
Craig A. Finseth, Stephanie Zvan

Deconstructing the Paranormal
Sunday, 3:00 p.m.
A step-by-step look at an open-minded scientific approach to investigating paranormal claims.
Pete Lane, Stephanie Zvan, Rebecca Watson

I'll be checking out guest of honor programming and the Skepchick programming track. I might hit some writing panels, but I know most of the people on them and their opinions on the topics. Speculative fiction writing is a small community. Ben will have some of his photography in the art show.

We have a couple of other commitments this weekend, but we'll be around the con for most of it. Look for us above the pool, where the best people watching is, or near Atrium 7, where the skeptical programming is.

June 28, 2009

Happy Birthday

I first met my friend James a bit over 10 years ago (well, we'd been in the same place a couple of times before that, but we hadn't really met). It took me several years after that to get to know him, though, and not because we didn't spend a lot of time together.

Mutual friends of ours held--"parties" is probably too formal a word, let's say "at homes"--nearly every Friday night for a few years before they moved out of state. If you knew when and where to show up, the company and the atmosphere were great. James and his wife, Sara, and my husband and I were the most regular of guests. I came to know Sara pretty well and heard plenty about the great joy that was her masters thesis. But James....

James was generally just off to the side with his laptop, typing incomprehensible gibberish. I say that advisedly. There are plenty of programming languages I don't know well, but they don't look like gibberish. James speaks Spanish, Klingon, a few standard computer languages...and machine code.

He was writing an operating system. He was sitting at these, admittedly informal, social events and writing FreeDOS while the rest of us talked about gardening, grad school, writing and general silliness.

FreeDOS was meant to replace MS-DOS, for which Microsoft had announced they would discontinue support. It was meant to allow people to continue to use older software and hardware long after the big money-making machine said they should be obsolete, even if they still had all their working parts.

That's what FreeDOS did. It allowed people who couldn't afford to buy a new computer every three years to continue to operate. It allowed people who still loved their low-res games to keep pulling them out and playing them when nostalgia gripped them. It allowed people to buy a PC with an operating system on it without being beholden to Microsoft. FreeDOS did what it set out to do.

James has been stepping away from the FreeDOS project over the last couple of years. It will run on without him, most likely. There are people as dedicated to the project (obsessed) as James has been. But it's time for James to let his baby make its own way.

FreeDOS is 15 years old today. It's young for most people's babies to be on their own, but it's downright venerable for an operating system.

James, happy birthday to your baby. And even though we teased you about it at the time, it's amazing cool that I had the honor of being there while it happened.

June 27, 2009

Atheists Talk--Greg Laden

Greg Laden on African Missionaries
Atheists Talk #0076, Sunday, June 28, 2009

Missionaries tell us that they are saving the world, traveling to foreign lands to help the natives. Of course, "saving the world" means something a little different to those of us who don't believe there's a Satan who needs to be battled at every turn. We usually mean saving lives and bettering standards of living, actions that have meaning in the here and now. How do missionaries do in that regard?

Biological anthropologist Greg Laden joins Stephanie Zvan to talk about his experiences with missionaries in the remotest parts of Africa and answer questions about what missions really offer the indigenous populations. He'll tell us about the good and the bad and let us know where we need to step up to provide secular help uncomplicated by the religion of the missionaries.

This will be the final live Atheists Talk on the radio and the last podcast for a while, until we get the details of the ongoing podcast worked out. If you're not attending the Pride Parade with the Minnesota Atheists delegation, please consider joining us at Q.Cumbers after the show to celebrate our long and successful radio run.

"Atheists Talk" is produced by Minnesota Atheists. Mike Haubrich, Director and Host.

Podcast Coming Soon!
Write a review of Atheists Talk

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.

The Full Proposal Trail

Due to WordPress issues this morning, a couple of links got crushed out of the conspiracy that was Jodi's proposal to Jason. Here's the full list:

Almost Diamonds
Relatively Unrelated
FreeDOS blog at Source Forge
Greg Laden's Blog
Whitecoat Underground
Traumatized By Truth
My Fair Scientist
A Blog Around the Clock

Some additional words to, from and about the newly engaged:

Jodi and Jason--Pharyngula
Marriage: Why and how? And an Update on Jason and Jodi--Greg Laden's Blog
Happy for Jason--Tangled Up in Blue Guy
There's something weird on the internet--Lousy Canuck
Happy monkey! (a poll)--Lousy Canuck
The ring, my precioussss!--Lousy Canuck
Seriously, these Damned Canadians!!!1!11!!!1!--Traumatized By Truth
The internets get crazier every day--CyberLizard's Collection
True romance--Millard Fillmore's Bathtub
Regarding Jason's Impending Nuptials--Anthroslug
The second geekiest wedding proposal ever--NotKieran
PalCast #12---finally--White Coat Underground
Blogtrothed--Bad Astronomy
For the Geeks out there--Neurotopia

Much thanks to everyone who made this work.

Update: I've added a few more well wishes above. Let me know if I've missed any.

Hey, Jason

Your help is needed over here.

June 26, 2009

The "Rule" of Threes

This is not the post I intended to post today, but something happened that I could never anticipate would affect my blogging. Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson died. Even when it happened, I didn’t expect to blog about it. My reaction to both pieces of news was, “That’s a pity.” Then I moved on.

Eventually in my moving on, I got to Facebook, where I discovered that two celebrity deaths is not enough. One friend was "weirded out by the three celebrity icons that have passed away recently... Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, and Michael Jackson." Then there was " Wow....I know these things seem to happen in threes, but wow." and "Hopefully Ed McMahon was recent enough to fulfill the law of threes..." and "It happens in threes. It happens in threes."

I gave in. I wrote about it. You can find the results at Quiche Moraine.

June 25, 2009

Not a Buffy Fan, But....

This is a must-see for anyone who's a little creeped out by the idea of a decades-old vampire hanging around a high school trolling for girls. More specifically, for anyone appalled at how Twilight is being sold to us as romance.

via Survival of the Feminist

June 24, 2009

Final Exam

What do you get for the guy who doesn't like having a big deal made of his birthday? Well, when he's an incorrigible teacher who enjoys stories, maybe you give him a story about teaching and learning. Well, I do anyway. No idea what you're giving him.

Final Exam

As Serena approached the little wooden cottage on the edge of the school grounds where tests were always given, she saw Master Dominic sitting at a desk outside the door. He was scribbling something, as usual, with occasional pauses to tap his pen against his lips as he thought. Serena frowned and stopped humming her new tune.

She wished anyone but Dom-Dom were overseeing her final exam. She didn't know why he didn't like her, but he clearly didn't. When he saw who was coming, his thick black brows drew close together. He slumped heavily into his chair, the wilting effect enhanced by his height. It didn't make her nervous, exactly, but it didn't improve her mood.

He sighed. "So, you think you're ready for this?"

This was just too unfair. Worse than Dom-Dom's dislike was his persistent belief that she was incompetent. No one else at the school seemed to think so. Her teachers consistently rated her highly, and other students often came to her for help. If she wasn't ready, who was? She straightened her back. "I've always been one of the best students in this school, Master Dominic. I don't see why that should change now."

Master Dominic stared at her for a moment before grunting. "Perhaps."

His admission was grudging. Serena knew she wouldn't get a response if she asked him why. He'd just grunt again.

His long arm gestured toward the doorway beside him. "Instructions are on the table. Everything you need for the spell is there. Yell if you get into trouble."

Serena walked past him into the cottage without a response. Trouble? She'd miss a lot about the school once she graduated. She would not miss Dom-Dom.

After closing the door, she leaned her back against it and tried to relax. He always had that effect on her.

Once the first burst of anger passed, she wondered whether it was part of the test. Spells required concentration, and her teachers had always warned her that once she left the school, there would be more distractions to deal with. Maybe they wanted to know she could handle them. Serena went to a window for one more look at the old school building while she gave her emotions a chance to settle. If everything went well, this was the last time she'd see it as a student.

It was a sturdy, sprawling thing, two stories of gray brick roofed with slate. The front, which she couldn't see from here, held its only pretension to decoration, with sculpted stone pediments over the windows and door. The building was far too aware of its own dignity to be really inviting, but six years of happy memories made it beautiful to Serena.

The back consisted of two stark wings sheltering a large courtyard. Girls were in the wing closest to Serena and boys in the far wing. Serena thought the arrangement was intended to keep the students segregated after hours, but her theory wasn't well supported by personal experience. If they wanted to keep students from sneaking around, they shouldn't teach the spell of silence to third-years.

Smiling at memories of midnight parties that would have made her teachers shake their heads, Serena turned her back on the school. She calmly approached the broad blond wood table, the main feature in the cottage. It held a single large square of paper. There was no title, just a short list of ingredients and instructions roughly centered on the page. She read it through, stopping at the end to briefly decipher the key word.

Then she sat back and blinked in confusion. This was her final exam, the test that would determine her place in the world? Admittedly, from the length of the last word, it would require some power from her. She'd have to be precise and careful. But the spell seemed awfully simple.

She read it through again. It didn't get any harder. Annoyed again despite her best intentions, she set herself to learning the key word. Even if the rest of the spell was simple, this could take some time.

It wasn't that it was long, or even hard to pronounce. It contained at most six characters. (Serena carefully traced each character on the table, covering the rest with the fingers of her left hand as she worked. Yes, there were six.) But the language of magic contained more concentrated truth than most human brains could hold at once. It powered the spell and was liable to trip her up unless she treated it very cautiously.

Even here, the school had saved her some time. She wouldn't have to write it out during the spell, since her instructions told her to use the paper it was written on. She'd only have to say it.

As she practiced under her breath, her mouth grew warm, as though she were eating the heavily gingered pears that were the specialty of the school's cook. So she was right. The spell had to do with fire.

When Serena felt confident in the word, she memorized the rest of the spell. She suspected it would disturb a lot of the students to use the paper as part of the spell instead of having it next to them for reference, but she preferred to work from memory. The way she did it felt more magical, at least to her. And she could use her music.

Serena was a musician as well as a magician. She sang the old tunes and composed her own to share with friends. The choice between studying magic and music had been difficult. Left to herself, Serena might have chosen music. However, she'd only been thirteen when the time had come to choose, and her parents had considered magic the rarer and more valuable skill.

She hadn't quite been able to abandon music, though. She practiced whenever she could spare time from her studies.

She sometimes wondered whether that was what irked Master Dominic. When she made her rare mistakes, he obviously relished telling her she'd chosen her field poorly. And he often railed against the school for allowing students to waste time on their "trifling hobbies" when they should be studying magic.

Still, if Dom-Dom was obsessed by magic to the exclusion of everything else, Serena didn't see that she had to be. After all, she'd found a way for the music to help her learn the magic.

She assigned each ingredient of a spell a short line of melody based on her associations with it. The arrangement of the ingredients became simple harmonies. She turned every spell into a tune that would be complete only when all the elements were in their places. One piece flowed into another, making it nearly impossible for her to forget what came next.

Dominic was the only teacher who didn't seem impressed by Serena's memory. He was patient with other students who had to grope their way through remembering spells, but he seemed to resent her ready answers. He always asked her--and only her--questions from outside the lessons, and his criticism was harsh when she didn't have answers.

It wasn't just her studies where he held her to a ridiculous standard either. Just over a year ago, an hourglass she'd used in a spell had come apart in her hand as she was putting it away. It had, of course, happened under Dom-Dom's ever-watchful eye. It had been the occasion of one of his periodic rants about taking care of materials and planning for adverse events. As though she could have planned for an hourglass nearly as old as the school itself choosing that exact time to disintegrate.

Serena shook her head and concentrated on converting the exam spell to music, setting aside her grievance with Dominic. The spell seemed simple, but the tune it suggested to her was unusual. Most of the spells she'd learned were very structural, balancing diverse elements to form something new. The tunes she built from them tended to be lyrical and layered with complexity.

This spell was very straightforward. The tune had two main themes, repeated one after the other with slight variations when each new element came into play. It was almost a march. It definitely suggested a single purpose, building by repetition to the point where the key word would be inserted.

Serena didn't know how the key word would fit into the music of the spell. She never did until she worked the spell. It was one of the things about the language of magic that still defied her understanding.

Curious now and eager to find out how her song would end, Serena moved away from the table. She turned her attention to the plain cupboards that lined the walls of the cottage. They contained nearly everything anyone could want for a spell. It was an embarrassment of riches for a student. She hummed her new tune as she collected what she would need.

She'd spent enough time here to know where some of the more common items were kept. The candle was easy to find, although she had to rummage for an orange one. It wasn't a typical color for magic. The spices lined the bottom of a cupboard hung with bundles of dried herbs.

She let her hand linger over another drawer, this one a jumble of minerals, while she decided what size piece of copper seemed appropriate. The one she chose was already polished, suggesting she wasn't the first student that day to think it looked promising. After pausing briefly to hope the first student had passed, she dug for a piece of pyrite about the same size.

Other items took more work. She had to take a knife to a log by the fireplace to get the bark she needed. She nearly cut herself trying to find the right piece of glass buried in the drawer full of cotton batting, although the batting that stuck to her hand in the process was enough for the spell.

She stopped to laugh over the neatly labeled bag of dandelion fluff, then carried a firmly clasped handful back to the table. She had everything. Reading the spell through one last time, she made sure she had the harmony fixed firmly in her mind. With a deep breath, she decided she was ready.

Serena knew which direction was which after six years at the school, but now was not the time to get overconfident. She sang out the magical word for east.

The word echoed back to her from the surfaces of the room, robbed in every case of one piece of its meaning or another. It lacked the nuances of unknown places, creeping shadow, or sun. From the direction she expected came no answer that she could comprehend, and she turned to face that way.

She hummed her song only in her mind now. Holding the tallow candle like a pen, blunt end to the paper, she drew a line from the magical word toward the east. Then she drew six more lines leading out from the word like rays, tracing the seventh line directly over the first.

The pyrite was the first piece she laid down, faceted gold at the end of the eastern ray. The bark went opposite, cut into thin strips and covering the length of the western ray.

She moved counterclockwise by one ray to prop three tiny orange dried peppers up on their bases. If she'd had any doubt that this spell was meant to draw fire, the sight would have convinced her otherwise. On their ends, even leaning, they already looked like flames, and she knew how they tasted.

She paired the dandelion fluff with the peppers, trying not to breathe on it. She arranged the bright chunk of copper and a line of batting. Then she set a lens, a beautiful, dark red piece of glass, carefully over the word. She stuck the remains of the candle to its center.

She was sweating now, whether from the spell or with concentration she didn't know. It had been difficult to move slowly, to be as precise as she knew she needed to be. The simplicity of the spell and the compelling nature of the tune she'd created had tried to rush her along. Even now, as she was about to see the completion of her last spell at the school, she couldn't pause to appreciate the moment.

She said the word. It rang in her mind like a bell and the candle blossomed into flame.

But there was a problem. The song didn't end. Instead of dying off, the sound of the bell kept pulsing. Serena thought it was growing louder. She looked at the table.

The whole top of the candle was burning, not just the wick. As Serena watched, wax puddled at the base of the candle, split into three rivulets, and reached toward the edge of the lens. It was slow, but it showed no sign of stopping.

She didn't want to think what would happen when it reached the edge of the paper. Spell paper was impervious to nearly anything, but as far as she knew, the table and the rest of the cottage were made of simple wood. It would burn beautifully.

She had to do something. She doubted that smothering the fire physically would work, not with the word still ringing in her head. She needed a counterspell.

Serena hesitated, knowing she didn't have time for it. A counterspell meant asking Master Dominic for help and confirming his poor opinion of her. It might even mean failing, although she'd followed the spell exactly.

She'd never failed at a spell before, and the idea made her stomach ache. She couldn't have rushed that badly, could she? She felt ill.

She bit her lip. The school had created the test. That meant there had to be something she could still do to pass. There had to be another choice besides getting Master Dominic's help.

Wax continued to run down the candle as she thought. The bell continued to pulse in her mind's ear. It was definitely louder.

She'd always built songs out of spells. Could she do the opposite? She had a fair grasp of what needed to happen musically to resolve this song. Could she create a spell from that? Creating spells wasn't anything the school had taught them, but the teachers did keep telling them that real life was different from school. If nothing else, it gave her something to try before calling Master Dominic.

The first thing she needed was something to stop the belling from growing forever.

She remembered seeing dried lake weeds in her search for spell ingredients. They were the long rubbery weeds she hated when swimming. They felt so substantial wrapping around her legs, she was always afraid she'd be trapped. She hoped they could hold the spell she'd just performed.

She pulled the three most flexible leaves out of the cabinet where they hung next to the herbs and brought them back to the table. Tracing their fluted edges with her finger, she arranged them in a circle outside her diagram, the ends of the weeds overlapping.

That would give the fire something to do. The pulsing of the word should find an echo in the smaller rippling of the weed and should follow it around the circle. The march continued, but now it doubled back on itself. Its energy fed into moving rather than growing.

It would keep the fire from pressing on toward the edge of the paper, but how long would it hold? The wax was creeping down the three rays that she hadn't covered. It had reached a third of the way, and the heat was already intense. She had to do something to make the weeds resist it.

She drummed her fingers on the table, impatient and frustrated.

She wanted something with a tie to the original spell. It would make a more pleasant song, and Serena often found that those indicated the most powerful spells. She'd found something green to counter the hot colors of the original spell, water to counter fire. What else did she need to counter?

Her eyes lit on the peppers. She headed back to the spice cabinet. She didn't see anything obvious and she didn't want to waste time digging. She moved to the next cabinet, which held bottled brews. There she found what she needed.

Back at the table, she poured a little peppermint oil over her finger. She sniffed it, then touched it to her tongue. Bracingly cool, but not as strong as the peppers.

Again she traced the edges of the weeds, coating them liberally with the light green oil. She hoped quantity would make up for lack of intensity. In her mind, a cheerful little icy melody cut across the remaining sound of the word, competing with it, robbing it of its place of prominence.

That done, she looked at the remaining elements of the original spell. The wax was more than halfway out the rays. There was about a third of the candle left. She told herself to think faster.

The candle, bark, batting and fluff were all fuels. She could counter them with anything that wouldn't burn.

How about the minerals? The pyrite would spark if struck with a knife. The copper conducted heat. The glass lens concentrated the light and heat of the sun.

So she wanted an opaque mineral, something that wouldn't feed, create or transmit fire. Ideally, it would be something she could make a barrier from. Stopping the spell might not be enough if the fire kept burning on its own. If it had associations with water, all the better.

Serena grinned with relief and stepped away from the table. She was glad of Dom-Dom's unfair lecture now. Without it, she might not have remembered. The black sand from the broken hourglass was just what she needed.

At the time, she'd swept the sand back into the hourglass and jammed the lid back on. She found it where she'd shoved it in the back of a cabinet, Dom-Dom's words still ringing in her ears. The lid came off as easily as she remembered and she shot a dirty look at the cottage door in passing.

She poured the sand onto the table, circling the leaves and staying just inside the edge of the paper. Then she spread it out in an even layer. She pushed some of it under the leaves. Working quickly, she kept one eye on the shrinking candle. The sand created a variation on the theme of the other minerals, but this time the march shuffled its feet.

The bell was nearly buried in her new music. Now she just needed another key word to finish her counterspell. It needed to be something she knew. She didn't have time to look something up and practice it. It should be the smallest change she could invoke. She didn't have the energy to deal with more unintended consequences.

She thought of a word and traced it onto the bare table. She silently rehearsed the pronunciation, keeping one eye on the candle. Just before the flame reached the pooled wax on the lens, she wrote in the sand and said the word--hold.

It cut itself off in her mouth.

Then the last of the candle was gone. The flame covered the lens with a quiet whoosh and shot up into the air. It stopped just short of the ceiling. Then it raced down the six rays. When the fire reached the ends of the rays, it flared again. With a loud pop, the elements of the test spell that she had so carefully assembled had disappeared. There was only fire left, one large flame in the center and six hungry, reaching arms.

They quickly came to the weeds. There they paused. Tall flames lunged toward the leaves and retreated. Forward and back. Forward and back. Nearly dancing.

Then they turned. They followed the leaves, bobbing in synch with the rippled edges until there was a circle of dancing flames.

The song ended with a chord that resolved all the themes she had created.

Serena watched long enough to see that the fire was no longer growing, the weeds not blackening or shriveling. Then she closed her eyes in relief. Her legs shook.

She had told her spell to hold, using the word that meant to simply contain, embrace without smothering. It had held. She'd passed.

She opened the door to the cottage and walked around the desk. "Master Dominic, I'm done."

Dom-Dom had been starting to get up, but he sat back down. He looked startled. "Already?"

Had it only felt like the test took forever? Serena nodded.

His expression was stern. "Fire properly started?"

"Quite." Serena suppressed a smile.

He raised his eyebrows. "No damage to the cottage or the table?"

She blinked at his disbelief and reminded herself she wouldn't have to deal with him again. She'd passed. She made her tone firm. "None."

Master Dominic settled back into his chair, and it was Serena's turn to be startled. He smiled at her for the first time in her six years at the school. "Congratulations."

"I, uh," Serena didn't know what to say. "Thank you?"

He laughed and rubbed one earlobe. "I suppose I earned that." He gestured at the chair next to her.

As much as she was in no condition to stand, she sat down gingerly. She wondered what was coming next. How many shocks could she handle in a day? She promptly got another.

"Serena, I owe you an apology."

She blinked dumbly, and Dominic went on.

"You're very bright but not the first bright student in this school."

She frowned. "Of course not."

"I'm glad to hear you say that. All too often, I meet students who think being bright makes them incredibly special. It's their ticket out of working as hard as the other students." He smiled ruefully. "I thought you were one of those students."

Dominic stood up and paced behind the desk. "You were always singing instead of studying. You knew what I told you to learn and not one word more. It bothered me that you were willing to be just as good as everyone else when you could have been much better."

She took a deep breath. She'd never looked at it that way, but there was some uncomfortable truth to his words. "I--"

He held up a hand. "I told you, I owe you an apology. I misjudged you. We teachers are human too, you know. That's part of the reason for this test."


"After six years of working with students, we know which of you can handle what level of magic. We see it every day." Dominic sat back down.

"If that were all there was to magic, we could just send each of you out the door with a reasonably large spellbook of the right level. We want to know which of you have the capacity for more. That takes curiosity, which can't be taught but can be learned. It's also ridiculously difficult to measure in a classroom, when you're all learning the basics."

Serena didn't understand. "The test measures curiosity?"

"In part. And a good thing, too." Dominic ran one hand through his salted black hair. "If it had been up to me, I'd have said you'd never get curious enough to flip the paper over and read the counterspell on the back."

The world wobbled a little. Serena clutched at the chair seat to steady herself. Her ears buzzed.

"Are you all right?"

She took a deep breath and looked at Master Dominic. "There's a counterspell on the back?"

As the words sank in, Master Dominic was on his feet and in the cottage. It was several minutes before he came out. Serena had plenty of time to wonder what she could do with her life now.

"What did you do?" His words were very quiet.

I failed, she thought. It hurt as much as she'd thought it might. "I used another spell to hold the first one."

"Where did you find it?"

"I made it up." She might as well own up to the worst. "Master Dominic, you were right about me. I didn't find it. I've never looked at a spellbook that wasn't assigned. It never occurred to me to turn the paper over." She bowed her head and waited for one of his famous lectures.

"You made it up?"

She nodded at the ground. He was being very gentle with her and she couldn't stand it. "I've failed, haven't I?"

"Well, I think we'd like you to stay at the school for a bit."

Serena had never heard of a student being held back after a final exam. "You mean I'm not even ready to go out and practice magic?"

"I don't know that I'd say that." Dominic sounded suspiciously cheerful.

Serena looked up to see him grinning. She wasn't sure whether it was a good sign or a bad one. "What do you mean?"

"None of us know the spell you used in there." He shook his head, his eyes wide, before focusing on Serena again. "And I think we'd all like to know how a student who," he wagged his finger at her, but he was still grinning, "admittedly doesn't study any harder than she has to managed to come up with such an elegant counterspell."

She hadn't failed? Serena let it sink in. She'd even done something Dominic wanted to analyze. She hadn't failed. "I'll stay if you think I have something to teach you."

"And maybe something still to learn?" Dominic's smile was softer now, more friendly.

Serena felt herself smiling back. She nodded.

They shook hands across the desk.
Continue reading...

June 23, 2009

Today's Reading

Via Bora, comes today's must-read, a combination of horrific science reporting and blaming rape victims. Here's the actual science:

In the study, psychologists at Leicester Uni asked men to consider themselves in various scenarios with a female acquaintance and find out if or when they were more likely to coerce a woman into sex. The scenarios differed with the acquaintance wearing different clothes, drinking alcohol, being aware of her previous sexual partners or her being assertive.

The main finding was that men who considered themselves sexually experienced were more likely to coerce women into sex. These men found resistance from a woman sexually arousing. Interestingly, alcohol had the opposite effect than expected with men more like to coerce sober women rather than those that were drunk.

Go read Vagina Dentata to find out how that study got misreported. Then pick your jaw up off the floor.

Also, via the author's Twitter feed, I'd managed to miss the fact that Halliburton has managed to force their employees to not report crimes.

June 22, 2009

Man of the Cloth

I've had a major crush on Rowan Atkinson for over 20 years. It took Critter sharing the following video, however, to make me realize something.

This guy has played a hell of a lot of priests. There's the famous turn in Four Weddings and a Funeral, of course. Less famous, for some unknown reason, is the beautiful black comedy Keeping Mum. Priests in both.

None of them are alike: competent and incompetent, confident and timid, sincerely religious and...not. Indeed, the one thing they have in common is that they're funny, which makes me less than surprised that he had this to say about an anti-religious-defamation law proposed in Britain in 2004:

To criticize a person for their race is manifestly irrational and ridiculous, but to criticize their religion, that is a right. That is a freedom. The freedom to criticize ideas, any ideas - even if they are sincerely held beliefs - is one of the fundamental freedoms of society. A law which attempts to say you can criticize and ridicule ideas as long as they are not religious ideas is a very peculiar law indeed.

Yeah, that crush isn't going away any time soon.

June 21, 2009

Political Camouflage

When DrugMonkey Tweeted a link to this study earlier this week, I had to follow it. I do love me some science-based policy and effective interventions.

A study suggests that school-based prevention programs begun in elementary school can significantly reduce problem behaviors in students. Fifth graders who previously participated in a comprehensive interactive school prevention program for one to four years were about half as likely to engage in substance abuse, violent behavior, or sexual activity as those who did not take part in the program. The study, supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), a component of the National Institutes of Health, will appear in the August 2009 print issue of the American Journal of Public Health. The online version of the article is viewable today.

I was happily reading along, noting that the authors were appropriately cautious, talking about the longer-term follow-up that needs to be done. Then I hit this paragraph.

"This study demonstrates that a comprehensive, schoolwide social and character development program can have a substantial impact on reducing problem behaviors of public health importance in elementary-school-age youth," said Dr. Brian Flay of Oregon State University, the study’s principal investigator.

"[C]haracter development"? Huh. "Character" is one of those words, right up there with "class" and "breeding," that generally tells me someone is trying to separate the "deserving" and the "undeserving" for their own exclusionary purposes. I headed to the website of Positive Action, the program in question.

The first look was not promising. Their page title reads, "Positive Action: an Evidence-Based Character Education Program." There was the problematic word again. However, the further I dug into their curriculum, the less I saw that was in any way objectionable, since it turns out the reliance on this nebulous quality of "character" was all surface.

Relieved but grumpy, I bitched to DM.

They've got to make the program all about "character"? Because if we instill self-esteem and teach kids to analyze behavior and view influences skeptically, they might turn out to be too radical or something.

Don't mind me. I'm just pissed that we have to support conservative buzzwords that are tied to all sorts of nasty thinking in order to get a good idea past them.

We snarked a bit about the nature of the conservative character, and I forgot about the matter until I saw this link from Analiese.

Thankfully, the Obama administration has brought some measure of sanity to public health policy, cutting most abstinence-only education funding from the 2010 budget. But abstinence organizations are not going away. In fact, they're getting organized. Well aware that their cause is in trouble and unpopular, purity proponents are revamping their image to appear more mainstream. And with Obama's faith-based initiative lending them an ear, it just might work. [...]

The lack of consistent and presentable leadership, combined with ripe-for-mockery educators like Deltano, has made it all too easy to dismiss the virginity movement's message. And they know it. One of the "Strategic Objectives" now listed on the NAEA website is "Rebranding the abstinence message."

So when the NAEA met for its annual lobby day in March, high on the list of priorities was developing a strategy for continuing to receive federal dollars. Joe Sonka, managing editor of the Advocates for Youth blog Amplify, wrote of the lobby day, "Instead of abandoning their demonization of condoms and adherence to social conservative ideology over sound science, they would simply rebrand themselves as a curriculum that 'wasn't just about abstinence,' but was all about 'holistic approaches' to 'healthy lifestyle choices.'"

At an April 29 Capitol Hill briefing, Huber told the room that abstinence-only education is "not a 'just say no' message." "This is not abstinence only, this is a holistic message that prepares and gives students all of the information they need to make healthy decisions," Huber said. In fact, the NAEA isn't even calling its programs "abstinence only" anymore--now they're "abstinence centered."

You know, of course, that they're nothing of the sort. I highly recommend reading the article to find out what new guises the abstinence movement is using to hide itself. It's even claiming to be "science-based," although as you would expect, the science is the bought-and-paid-for sort that the energy companies are using to fight effective action against global warming.

Yes, read and be prepared (as it were). But while you're reading, feel free to take a moment to be heartened, because it's awfully nice to know that they are feeling the need to adopt our language for a change.

June 20, 2009

Atheists Talk--James Morrow

Towing Jehovah, James Morrow
Atheists Talk #0075, Sunday, June 21, 2009

First, let's suppose that Jehovah God is real. Good News for the religious, right? Then, let's twist it a bit and see what happens should Jehovah die. This would cause a major problem for at least the Abrahamic religions. After all, how could we hope for eternal life if the Provider Himself is subject to mortality? The guarantee of eternal life in His Presence would at that time become null and void. Steps must be taken and a cover-up must be carried out. Hiding bodies is difficult enough, but when the body of Jehovah falls from Heaven and turns out to be two miles long, complications multiply. The beauty of novels is that they allow absurdities to shed light on reality, and James Morrow uses the device of the dead god to illuminate our notions on religion and philosophy. Scott Lohman, president of the Humanists of Minnesota, will interview Morrow on our show.
"Atheists Talk" is produced by Minnesota Atheists. Mike Haubrich, Director and Host.

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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.

June 19, 2009

In the Trees

For someone with acrophobia, I spent an awful lot of time as a child a story or more off the ground in trees. We had a treehouse for a few years that was worth the climb up the rope ladder. I spent uncounted hours reading in weeping willows, having juggled a book and usually an apple in my climb. I'd ignore the discomforts of my irregular perch for the privilege of reading uninterrupted, just me and the tree. No one ever looked up.

I have another post up at Quiche Moraine today, back to my usual Friday schedule. This one ended in a place I didn't expect when I started it. I really should have. I know me better than that. It just never occurred to me. Anyway, you can read it for yourself.

June 18, 2009

Not So Silent

It's mid-June and people are still writing some very impressive posts related to Silence Is the Enemy. They're worth the read.

  • Jason has a good rundown of the situation with our shared troll. Fascinating that someone would claim to be doing this to help raise awareness of rape but never consider that consent might be an important factor.
  • ScienceWoman totally stole my idea of using music, right down to using one of the same songs. Not that she knew I was planning to or anything.
  • Also at ScienceWomen, Alice put up a reminder that sexual assault is not just an "over there" problem. It's a problem we all share.
  • And Toaster is doing a fascinating series on the ways men are not helping other men to be part of the solution. I'd point out that he's missing the ways that women aren't helping men, but this time around, if he wants it to be about the guys, so be it.
Update: The above comment about Toaster's series is in no way meant to imply that he should be writing about anything else. It's more a wry observation about who is attending to what where in this discussion. Nonetheless, he's on it.

June 17, 2009

Dangerous Creatures

I was sitting down with a very good friend of mine the other day for a much-needed catch-up session. He said, "My mother's behaving better. I'm starting to think I might not have to kill her and bury her in the back yard."

He looked down, then back up. "The sad thing is that I could."

I just nodded. That last part wasn't news.

With special events rearranging our schedule, it's been a while since I've had a new post up at Quiche Moraine. I'm told this one is scary, which considering the source, is a high compliment. Please check it out.

June 16, 2009

How Deep the Bullet Lies, Part III

This story I've already told, at least the first part of it.

It was a perfectly normal guy who didn't want to let go of me when I was in my late teens. We'd been hanging out, kissed a little bit, but I was done. He wasn't. It took making it very clear that one of us was going to be injured to get him to realize I meant it and let go.

If I had been more intimidated (he was a big Navy boy) or less sober or less willing to risk hurting him or being hurt, there's a very good chance it would have ended in rape. The fact that he was horrified when he figured out I really did mean it wouldn't have changed that at all.

Unlike the events in Part I and Part II of this series, this wasn't a traumatic experience. Quite the opposite. Oh, it was scary enough while it was happening, but the fact that fighting back solved the problem was...cathartic. Educational.

Then, nearly two decades later, I decided to mention it. That was also educational. Not terribly cathartic.

I've had a friend decide to "walk away" over everything that happened in the last week and a half. I discovered that the person whose behavior I asked my friend to look at, thus dragging him into the whole mess, was using me and everyone else to generate controversy and pull attention to a cause he'd adopted. (Why do I believe Jason? This, mostly. It's all too familiar: the big idea, the disregard for whether anyone else has consented to participate or is being hurt, the "regret" that changes no behavior.)

I've learned a few things about myself. I've learned just how stubbornly determined I am to see some things through and to get something worthwhile even out of awful situations. I've learned much more about the limits of how far I can push myself into the territory of using myself up.

I've learned how sane and self-sufficient I sound even when I'm on the verge of cracking. Funny, even. I can't drop all that, apparently. I can take someone apart and lay the pieces out for everyone to see, but I can't lash out (even when it's the kinder option). I can tell someone what I need, but I can't make them feel it. The more that's at stake, the less I'm able to make myself manipulate the situation.

I've learned how far I'll go to protect my voice, including removing it entirely from play. There's only one person who knows how close I came to deleting this blog and walking away from the internet. I found the support I needed and wrote these instead, amping up instead of shutting down, but the outcome was very much in doubt for a while.

I've learned how it feels to be on the receiving end of that off-topic kindness and silliness in the midst of a tough slog. I owe D.C., Ambivalent Academic, Will, Becca, DuWayne and Jason for that in ways I can't quite express. Toaster, too, even if he wasn't specifically trying to lighten the mood. I grin every time I see that cartoon.

But that's enough about me and what I'm taking away from (hoo, boy) the first half of this month. This series of posts was originally intended to say something about the fact that we can't know who we're talking to when we're talking about tough topics like this. I don't know whether it's done that, but either way, it's time to shift the focus away from me. Back to the broader topic tomorrow.

For now, go find something fun to read at the blogs that are supporting Silence Is the Enemy with their page-view revenue. As always, Bioephemera has much that is weird and wonderful. Go read and marvel.

June 15, 2009

Iran by the Numbers

Want to know what happened in Iran but need to take a break from the violence? FiveThirtyEight is applying their usual beautiful math and savvy to the situation.

Statistical Report Purporting to Show Rigged Iranian Election Is Flawed

Like most Americans, there are few things I would like to see more than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's hateful President, to be voted out of office. Elections in thuggish, authoritarian states like Iran need be treated with the utmost skepticism and scrutiny. I can't say I have any real degree of confidence in the official results, which showed Ahmadinejad winning with some 62 percent of the vote.

There is a statistical analysis making the rounds, however, which purports to show overwhelmingly persuasive evidence that the Iranian election was rigged. I do not find this evidence compelling.

Iranian Election Results by Province

Iran Does Have Some Fishy Numbers

Although widespread allegations of fraud, manipulation, intimidation and other all too common elections tactics have been be common, statistically detecting fraud or manipulation is a challenge. For example, while mathematicians have been evaluating vote returns for irregularities in normal situational random number distribution , determining what the "correct" results should be is very difficult.

However, given the absolutely bizarre figures that have been given for several provinces, given qualitative knowledge - for example, that Mahdi Karroubi earned almost negligible vote totals in his native Lorestan and neighboring Khuzestan, which he won in 2005 with 55.5% and 36.7% respectively - there is room for a much closer look.

Polling Predicted Intimidation -- and Not Necessarily Ahmadinejad's Victory

Ballen and Doherty are doing admirable and important work. Regular readers will know how difficult it is to conduct a good poll in the United States. Take that difficulty to the fifth power, and you'll have some sense for how difficult it is to conduct a good poll in Iran.

Unfortunately, while the poll itself may be valid, Ballen and Doherty's characterization of it is misleading. Rather than giving one more confidence in the official results, the poll raises more questions than it resolves.

June 14, 2009

Speaking of Torture

On the way home from the Atheists Talk show today, Mike had Speaking of Faith playing in the car. This is actually pretty common among the "active" atheists I know, this listening to religious radio. I, perhaps because I'm not one of the deconverted, don't really get it.

However, today I was lousy company for the ride back home. I was engrossed in the show.

The topic? Torture. But this wasn't the torture conversation that's been going on: Who approved what when and did anything useful come of it and/or will we prosecute? This was actually a discussion of torture, how it moves through organizations and society and what it does to the people along the way, how modern torture has been informed by our advances in understanding the human mind so that "nonviolent" forms are nothing of the sort.

I don't understand why this was on Speaking of Faith. Maybe they lumped it under ethics. Whatever. Doesn't matter. What does matter is that people listen to this show, preferably before they try to discuss the topic again.

Seriously, go listen.

June 13, 2009

How Deep the Bullet Lies, Part II

I was fifteen and sitting in the back of a pickup truck in a parking lot at UW-Stout on Christmas Eve eve. We'd gotten a bit off track.

On track would have been meeting the guy to whom I was going to "lose" my virginity. Virginity didn't actually mean anything to me, but mine was getting annoying. I kid you not, there were two guys, uncle and nephew but very close in age, arguing over which one of them was going to take my virginity nine months down the road when I turned sixteen and was legal.

I had other plans, which included shutting these guys up already. They also included the younger brother of the fiance of a friend of mine. They didn't include everybody but me, my friend, and her fiance's father working until sometime that evening, but they all were. Hence the diversionary road trip until we could pick up younger son.

There was a topper on the back of the truck and maybe a heater. I don't remember it being freezing. I do remember being offered a rum and Coke. My friend, who at eighteen was hoping she was pregnant, didn't drink anything. I'm not sure whether I had a second drink.

I'm not chatty, so I didn't really notice how hard I'd been hit until it was time to climb out of the back of the truck and back into the cab. If I didn't have a second drink and the rum wasn't 151, I was drugged.

He insisted that I sit between him and my friend. Then he unzipped his pants and explained that unless and until I "lent him a hand," we weren't going anywhere.

So I did. I was too intoxicated to think to counter-threaten with the fact that he'd already committed one federal felony by hauling me across state lines to get me drunk. I had nowhere to go, because I was trapped between him and my sober, silent "friend." My one coherent thought was that this would be a very useful time for that passing out thing some people did around alcohol. I did that too.

I couldn't stay passed out through the whole ride home, though, probably because it wasn't safe. So there are nightmare flashes here and there of streetlamp illumination moving at freeway speeds. I remember being back at my friend's house, younger son showing up after work, losing that pesky virginity because it was part of the plan (if not necessarily right then) and because if I didn't follow the plan, I'd have to figure out what else to do.

My friend told younger son a few days later what had happened. It was apparently important to explain to him why I didn't want to date him, although the truth is that he was very sweet but not that bright. She never said anything to me about why she didn't try to stop it.

Every few years, she sends a note saying she'd like to catch up. She sent another one yesterday.

Lessons learned: (1) Letting someone mix your drinks means trusting them with your life. (2) The number of your friends is much smaller than the number of people you hang out and kid around with.

As I said before, I'm writing this now for the one person who deserves to know. I'm posting it because there are a few others who might get something out of it. I've never talked to anyone about it, not for any of (what I assume are) the standard reasons, but because I don't want to spend any more time or energy on it. Even then, I knew people who'd been through far worse experiences and far worse betrayals.

This might be painful to you, which I understand and am sorry about. I still don't want to talk about it. Or hear about it. If you feel you need to write something, Sheril's got some suggestions about where your note can do some good for people who need it, badly. If that's not enough for you, she has some other suggestions about things you can do to help those people. Not all of them involve your money. Do those instead.

June 12, 2009

Where Not to Get Advice

We already know we shouldn't rely on Oprah or her guests for general medical advice or for medical advice for women, her main audience. Turns out, somewhat unsurprisingly, that one shouldn't listen to her on matters of sexual health either. From Carnal Nation:

Take sexual orientation, for example—a subject that’s been in the news once or twice lately. As recently as 10 weeks ago, Oprah was asking psychologist Lisa Diamond if women turn to other women sexually “because of a shortage of men.” Oprah also wondered why, when women turn away from men, so many seem to choose women who don’t, um, look so feminine. [...]

Oprah is so focused on female victimization, in fact, that she even tells the astounding untruth that doctors pay more attention to the sexual aspects of prostate surgery than to hysterectomy. She also forgets to mention that more men die from prostate cancer than from breast or uterine cancer.

While I admire what Oprah did to make it okay for people to talk about being the victims of sexual assault, perhaps someone who is still so traumatized by her assault that she can't name her own body parts is not the person women should turn to for advice on how to nurture their own sexual and reproductive health.

Well, you may call it the vagina, but poor Oprah just can’t stand that ugly word. “Don’t you think vi-jay-jay sounds better than vagina?” she asked with a pained expression. And the urethral opening? That’s “where you pee-pee,” said the 55-year-old Oprah on national TV.

Thanks to Lou for the link.

June 11, 2009

Desperate Guys

Apropos of nothing more than the fact that it popped up on the iPod on the way home and made me smile. Warning: strobes.

The Faint

Can you hear me thinking? I should stop.

June 10, 2009

Why "No Means No"

There are things that I can't do regarding Silence Is the Enemy. I can't donate my blog revenue, since I don't make any. I can't entice you to click to raise cash with weird science (much of it involving sex that is hugely more comfortable to read about than anything I've been saying), the way Scicurious is, or with delightfully and fearfully made shoes, the way Isis is. I can't dig into the political problems that make war and wartime rape more likely, or incite people who were going to troll anyway to do it for a good cause, the way Greg can (at least not on my blog).

What I can do is write about the peripheral issues that come up in the discussions, the misinformation and misunderstandings that make the general topic of rape harder to discuss. I've already done some of that, and I'll continue to do more.

One of the tangential issues that came up in the thread that would not die is the statement "no means no."

I really hate to have to point this out, believe me... but sometimes a simple "I'd rather not," "I shouldn't," or even "no" isn't clear enough. I won't try to guess at numbers, I'm not qualified, but there are most certainly women who enjoy that particular game. Keep in mind that we're talking about college kids here. Boys and girls in their late teens and early twenties for the most part, and clear communication about sex and relationships is going to be fairly uncommon. Again, I'm not even going to pretend to put numbers on it, but I'm absolutely certain that sometimes it is honest miscommunication.

"No means no" is a simple slogan, but it just doesn't reflect reality. Imagine stopping only to be yelled at because your partner was getting into it and you ruined the mood. Imagine it happening when you're young and still inexperienced and emotionally fragile. How many times do you think that has to happen before a person is capable of mistaking a sincere "no" for a repeat of the previous situation, if only for a short time?

I'm not trying to say it's common... I'm just saying I'd be amazed if it never happened, and that I'd be amazed if there aren't piles of similar ways a misunderstanding could happen in a moment of passion. If the "victim" says that it was a misunderstanding, I'm inclined to believe her unless there's some other information to imply otherwise.

I'm going to assume that this is an honest statement of confusion, not an attempt at rape denialism or some kind of justification. It is worth noting, however, that I wasn't sure when I read it or much of the conversation that followed from it. But it's not useful to think of this as anything but a misconception that can be corrected, so I'm sticking with that.

The big problem with this statement is that "no means no" is not a slogan, meant to tell us what people are saying. It's an instruction.

The way that our culture talks about sex--or, more importantly, doesn't--is fundamentally screwed up. We're not really talking, most of us. We're role playing. We're taking the things that we're supposed to think and feel about sex and repeating them to one another in the place of figuring out and talking about our own feelings.

Religion hasn't helped, of course. The inequality between the sexes and mistrust of pleasure that the dominant religions of our society have promoted place particular pressure on women to deny enjoyment of sex, to deny desire. That means that "no" has frequently meant something other than "no." This is not a new concept.

However, it is a concept that came to be used by men as a justification for rape. As a means of excusing nonconsensuality, it came to be accepted and enshrined in a not insignificant portion of our media and our cultural mythos. That acceptance had to change.

"No means no" doesn't mean that everyone will always tell you the truth. It means "The only way to be sure that you do not victimize someone is to believe that they are saying what they mean. Do that." That part of it is true, and using counterexamples of when someone has not been entirely forthcoming doesn't change that truth at all. All it does is provide fodder for the people who don't want to follow the instructions.

In case it needs to be said, "no means no" goes for both men and women, and men were not the only people who needed to change their behavior. Communication never involves just one party. Men needed to act as though they believed something that often wasn't true, but women needed to learn how to tell the truth. "No means no" means that women had to learn to speak about their own desire. They had to take responsibility for their own sexuality, societal pressures notwithstanding.

I don't know how many times I heard while growing up, "If you're not mature enough to talk about sex, you're not mature enough to have it." The topic at the time was birth control and preventing STIs, but the same absolutely goes for the topic of consent. This is similar to the idea behind prohibiting statutory rape--consent cannot be meaningfully given at certain maturity levels--although honesty and thoughtfulness are much better indicators of maturity than age. (Incidentally, for the folks who worry about being accused of rape after consensual sex, attending to a potential partner's maturity has benefits for you, as well.)

In the end, "no means no" is about making the sexual landscape a better place to be: fewer victims, less blame laid on victims, more people seeing their desires fulfilled, better distributed work of communication. "No means no" isn't about describing the world as it is. "No means no" is about remaking the world as we want it to be.

No Punches Pulled

The Defenders

The License

Educate Against Prop 8

June 09, 2009

How Deep the Bullet Lies, Part I

It was the summer before fifth grade, so I was nine. My father had moved out, for reasons that no one would explain for a quarter century, so money was a bit tight.

We ended up with a boarder. I was nine, so what do I know, but he seemed fairly old to me. I'll guess now that he was in his late forties or his fifties. Friendly guy named Howard. From my mother's perspective, he was a godsend. He took care of us.

He took the whole family out to breakfast on Sundays. I'd eat the pancakes, then go into the bathroom and throw them up. It turned out that I'm sensitive to milk and needed to spend a year avoiding the stuff, but I now eat cheese and ice cream and drink mochas. I don't eat pancakes. I don't let myself throw up either.

He babysat too, when my mother needed an evening out. He would pull out magazines to show my younger brothers, ask them how they felt about what they were seeing. He wanted me to look and talk and show too, but as long as there were younger and more compliant children around, I could refuse. Not get away, because that would have meant being alone and more vulnerable, but not have to participate. I still learned far more than I needed to know at nine, none of it useful for doing anything more than separating me further from the other kids my age.

It stopped after a friend stayed the night and told her mother. Mine wanted to know why we hadn't told her. I don't know that we had any answers, but having been raised to do nothing in bad situations, I'm not surprised.

He went away. I don't think he was charged, because I don't remember having to talk with anyone about what happened. There are plenty of things I don't remember from that age, though.

Lessons learned: (1) Protecting yourself often means failing others who need protection too. (2) Someone will always question how you handle it.

I'm writing this now for the one person who deserves to know. I'm posting it because there are a few others who might get something out of it. I've never talked to anyone about it, not for any of (what I assume are) the standard reasons, but because I don't want to spend any more time or energy on it. There are things that did me far more damage. In all the stuff I carry around with me, this one is a minor scar.

It might not be minor to you, which I understand. I still don't want to talk about it. Or hear about it. If you feel you need to write something, Sheril's got some suggestions about where your note can do some good for people who need it, badly. If that's not enough for you, she has some other suggestions about things you can do to help those people. Not all of them involve your money. Do those.

June 07, 2009

If I Only Could

Running Up That Hill


The Flash Girls

June 06, 2009

Atheists Talk--Carrie Iwan

Skepchickcon/Convergence Skeptics Track 2009
Atheists Talk #0073, Sunday, June 7, 2009

Skepchick is a group of female (and one "deserving" male) bloggers dedicated to the idea that skepticism and fun can and should coexist. They turn sharp wit and sharper intellect on subjects such as religion, UFOs, medical quackery, and credulous and sensational reporting. At the same time, they dismantle the idea of skepticism as a dry, intellectual exercise at their many events and meetups, such as their Drinking Skeptically and Skeptics in the Pub events.

This July, they're combining both strengths by hosting a series of panels and other events at Convergence, the Twin Cities largest current science fiction and fantasy convention. Many of the Skepchicks will attend, and special guests include astronomer Pamela Gay and MN Atheists own PZ Myers.

In the studio, Stephanie Zvan will interview Skepchick Carrie Iwan about the Skepchick organization, Convergence and other ways to have fun while thinking skeptically.

"Atheists Talk" is produced by The Minnesota Atheists. Mike Haubrich, Director and Host.

Podcast Coming Soon!
Write a review of Atheists Talk

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.

Words, Pride and Obligation

A Note to Rystefn and Lou

Some writers fall in love with words. The more I write, the more I know how little individual words mean. The more I interact with people very different from me, the more I ignore exact words and tell others to do the same. They're just not that helpful. "Divided by a common language" and all that.

There were two words placed in close context in one of these posts, "soldier" and "rapist." The first of these words invoked your pride in a way that probably no other word can. Rightfully so. About the only benefit you're given in return for the privation and danger of serving your country as a solider is pride. That's wrong, in that you deserve more in return for what you give, but that's another post.

It's also wrong in terms of what pride does, because that second word ran smack into that pride. Honestly, I can't even begin to imagine how much that must have hurt. That's a strong word and pride is very vulnerable. I hurt in sympathy, but I know it doesn't approach what you must have felt to hit that. I'm pretty sure I can't understand that.

However, and I ask you to bear with me as I explain, rather than starting to argue immediately, this does not mean that Greg owes you an apology for calling you a rapist. For two reasons.

The first is that he didn't call you a rapist. At least not in the post or the comments on his blog. I will get to the other part later.
  1. He elucidated someone else's theory and asked for responses and challenges to it. Those words were fully embedded in that person's theory.
  2. He asked for a different word. No, he didn't endorse Rystefn's alternative. He didn't argue with it either. Given the specificity he was looking for regarding a physical response and the confusion in the comments over whether "potential" is even meaningful, I get being hesitant.
  3. He actually used quite a large number of words to explain what the theory was saying about behavior. In order to claim he called you a rapist in any way that is more meaningful than calling you a motherfucker, you need to ignore a lot of context, context that specifically states you didn't rape anyone, even if the theory is correct in all its details.
None of that changes the fact that it hurt like hell. It just says that Greg did not call you a rapist.

The second reason is that "you owe me an apology" is a direct functional equivalent to "dance, monkey, dance." Apologies are rituals. They're socially useful, but they're empty on their own. It would probably make you feel better for Greg to apologize for calling you a rapist, but given that he doesn't believe he did, it wouldn't mean anything. He'd be dancing.

If you want an apology, ask for one that doesn't involve him saying something he doesn't believe. Do you really think he's any happier about the fact that you're hurting than I am? (Actually, Rystefn, there's a pretty fair chance that by the time we got to my blog thread, Greg was hurting you for hurting me. You can ask him.)

In the meantime, you're walking around in a discussion about rape wrapped in a sense of entitlement. Somebody owes you something. It comes across in your focus, where you're pushing people to discuss the details of marginalized sexuality, about which you know quite a bit, rather than the general topic of preventing rape. It comes across in your language, where you're telling women they "have to" do something, generally agree with you. Sometimes apologize to you.

You're telling these people to dance, too. Some of them are rape survivors. All of them are aware of their potential for victimization, particularly aware at the moment. I'm pretty sure you would generally be much more sensitive to both of these behaviors in this context, so I'm blaming the entitlement.

In most contexts, the shift in behavior that entitlement creates would make me unhappy, because my friends aren't communicating. In this context, I find it creepy as hell. You're giving me a very clear picture of how entitlement can lead to me, both personally and as a female in general, being utterly discounted, even by someone I consider a very close friend.

Guys, I understand and hate that you're hurting, but you're scaring me.

June 05, 2009

Why So Silent?

Silence Is the Enemy is, as should be obvious, an initiative to get people talking about rape, with the goal of stopping it and helping the victims. A large number of the people who don't usually talk about this but are now are women.

For the record, we don't tend to keep silent not because we're not interested parties. We keep silent because there are risks to talking. There are the people who will mock us for talking about a bad experience.

More to the point, how did this thread come to be about you? It strikes me as a wee bit narcissistic of you, to turn a thread about the scope and limits of cultural relativism into an account of What Happened to Me When I was a Kid.

Just remember, Steph: it's all about you. Everything's about you.

There are the people who will insist that your concern be subsumed in the interest of uncovering the DARKER TRUTH.

Do you know that for nearly 30 years feminists were using pseudo-science to justify the belief (not the fact) that men were the only ones who are violent in a relationship? For 30 years, dozens of studies were fudged to support this LIE. Eventually, the truth came out: one third of hospital visits related to DV are from men, victimization studies amongst younger couples show that women are slightly more violent than men. And it turns out that the most violent form of relationship is same-sex female (i.e. lesbians).

And then there are your friends--bless their myopic hearts. Let me tell you a story.

I sent an email to a male friend yesterday afternoon because I was finding a combination of arguments made in all this mess to be creepy and he had a perspective that could be useful. I used the word, "creepy," in the email and asked for a gut check because I know I'm not a disinterested party in this discussion. This is not an easy subject to talk about for the reasons listed above and others, and I've been getting less and less comfortable as the week has worn on. I was going out of my way to be fair to the party in question.

For reasons of no importance, the email didn't reach its target until this morning. My friend and I chatted back and forth a little bit. He asked me how things were going. I responded.

Stressful. I've just spent this week talking and writing about rape with a bunch of guys who have told me:
  • I have no business bringing personal experience into the discussion and making it all about me.
  • Women lie about these things, you know.
  • What about the men?
  • It's more important to have fun sex than to be clear on consent at the beginning and throughout the process.
  • Their gut impression is more valid than my interested and studied opinion.
  • Where is my outrage about name calling?
Yep. Stressful.

That wasn't going out of my way to be fair in the least, but he'd asked.

As he dug into the thread, he commented about the lack of communication going on in the comments. I directed him a bit more toward the parts that were "creeping me out," including a lack of apparent empathy. Eventually, he came back with a fairly dispassionate analysis of the theory of the rape switch and some commentary on the nature and complexity of sexuality.

I asked, "So, in all this, why was I not able to sleep last night?"

He responded, "Because you hate to be wrong."

When I had choked back both the urge to cry and the urge to rip his throat out, I carefully asked him to "be a little more specific about what I said yesterday that was wrong that I would know was wrong that would keep me awake."

The response: "I was just poking you, I wasn't actually serious."

That was when I did cry. Hell, I'm crying now, writing about it.

There is a fundamental disconnect here that I do not understand. What about "we're talking about rape, and I'm creeped out and stressed to the point that I'm having trouble sleeping and want someone to double-check me on something" invites poking? For that matter, what about "when it comes to my safety, I don't care about fine distinctions in words" invites people to tell me I need to stick to higher moral ground than the trained guys with weapons?

Yes, those are questions. I'm still closing the comments on this post, because I truly can't predict what I'll do if someone tries to answer them in terms of their feelings and needs instead of mine. If someone wants to talk about it, they can open a thread somewhere where I don't have to see it.

I had enough not being heard. Y'all can try it for a change.

Update: DuWayne's got a somewhat ridiculously titled post open for anyone who wants to talk among themselves.

June 04, 2009

When Is a Rapist?

If the point of Silence Is the Enemy is to get people talking, this post at Greg's about whether there is a "rape switch" that can be triggered in warfare is doing the trick. Of course, much of the talk is debate over rape statistics and over this section of the post:

In the [genteel] society in which we imagine ourselves living (at least according to many of the comments on the above cited post) the switch is off, and stays off for most people's lives. But there are circumstances in which most men's switch is turned on. The switch being on does not mean that rape will happen. It simply means that the man (with the switch on) is now a rapist, whether he actually rapes or not (but he probably will), and when the switch is off, he is not (so he probably won't). It is a bit of a metaphor, and a strained one (see comments by commenter Elizabeth) at that.

The first comment is from Rystefn, objecting to the classification of "rapist," something he does throughout the thread. Finally, he wants to know, from me:

Oh, and while we're on the subject, why is it that you're so opposed to calling actual rapists monsters, but stand idly by and let innocent innocent men be called rapists without a word of complaint?

(Monsters is explained here.)

DuWayne's first response is much less rejecting:

My gut reaction to this is that it's total bullshit. I want it to be bullshit - almost need it to be. But I then consider the recent discussions about torture and my acceptance that while the circumstances are far-fetched (i.e. on a scale with getting struck by lightening three times, each time standing in the same spot) I can think of hypothetical situations in which I would not only condone torture, but wouldn't hesitate to engage in it myself.

Eventually, however, he posted his response on his blog. Much of it is a very eloquent exposition of one part of why I don't talk about monsters in general. I highly recommend reading it.

At the end of his post is his response to the rapist question:

Now a reasonable reading of this discussion will show that this is not something that Greg is saying as an absolute. Indeed, it is clear that he is willing to be convinced otherwise, though he strongly suspects that this is the case. I am going to answer the question in the title and respond to the idea in this quote with an emphatic and resounding; No, this is complete and absolute bullshit.

A person does not move from having the potential, to being the thing, unless they actually commit the act. The fact that a lot of people who end up fitting a similar set of variables commit acts of rape, does not mean that everyone who fits those variables is a rapist. It simply means that those who don't rape, require a different set of variables to become a rapist. [...]

I'm sorry Greg, but unless and until a person actually commits the act, they only have the potential to commit the act. Until the specific variables that will cause them to act are met, they are in fact, incapable of committing the act.

Read the whole thing.

I understand where Rystefn and DuWayne are coming from on the questions of moral judgment and punishment. For those purposes, the presumption of innocence should absolutely be maintained. However, that still leaves me with a question.

As a potential victim in this situation, what do I gain from making that assumption of innocence?

There are a lot of benefits, to me, of treating that large increase in incidence of rape as a universal, particularly if my goal is to prevent my rape in a war situation or that of others in a potential war situation. If I avoid all male soldiers in war, I am much more likely to avoid being raped. If I can stop war from happening, I can keep many more women from being raped. If I assume that no man is a rapist, even in war, until it's proven, there's a very good chance I can't do either. But both of those are the point of Silence Is the Enemy.

So, what outweighs the potential costs, to me, of acting as though Greg's statement were untrue?

June 03, 2009

U.S. Rape Statistics

As part of the ongoing discussion regarding Silence Is the Enemy (go read, click, donate), there is a commenter, Thomas, in this thread who is terribly concerned that rape statistics in the U.S. are inflated. He's citing this article by Dr. Christina Hoff Sommers (PhD in philosophy) suggesting that several studies on rape prevalence shouldn't be quoted because, well, you can read the reasons if you feel like it.

However, one helpful thing that Sommers does point out in this 2004 article is that the Bureau of Justice Statistics annual criminal victimization survey was revamped to ask about rape and sexual assault directly. It hadn't before 2004. Really. This means that the numbers are available, although Thomas didn't go out to find them himself.

So I did.

The question as asked in the survey is pretty simple and does not describe what is included in sexual activity. When kids who take abstinence pledges don't seem to understand that oral or anal sex is still sex, this is an important consideration. Nor does it specify what constitutes coercion.

Incidents involving forced or unwanted sexual acts are often difficult to talk about. (Other than any incidents already mentioned,) have you been forced or coerced to engage in unwanted sexual activity by –

(a) Someone you didn’t know before –
(b) A casual acquaintance –
(c) Someone you know well?

The overall annual rate was 0.1%. Note, that's an annual rate--0.1% of people in the U.S. over the age of 12 reported being raped or sexually assaulted in 2007. Those numbers are 0.01% for males and 0.18% for females. 71% of those assaulted were under age 25.

Doing some not-so-fancy multiplication of annual rates by years at that rate and adjusting for the gender difference, that gives me a 5.5% victimization rate for women before age 25, 10.4% lifetime, only counting assaults that happened after age 12. This doesn't count revictimization separately, because the data doesn't capture that. However, given the looseness of the question, I'm not going to sweat it.

Now these numbers are significantly lower than the numbers Sommers criticizes, 27.5% by college age and 12.5% lifetime. However, there's one more thing at the Bureau of Justice Statistics site.

Rape rates (and note that this just includes rape, not other sexual assault) have been dropping along with rates of other violent crime. The study on rape among college women was done in 1985, when rates of rape were approximately three times higher than they are now. That means we're looking at a one-in-six statistic instead of a one-in-four statistic at that time. Are you comforted?

The lifetime rates that displease Sommers, which were generated in 1990, look particularly grim if that same three-times multiplier is applied. Even counting for significant revictimization, which would become a greater factor over time, the one-in-eight figure from 1990 looks quite reasonable, if not conservative.

Nope, I'm unimpressed with the claims that anyone is "crying wolf."