June 25, 2010

CONvergence & Skepchickcon Schedule

This time next week, I will be done with my last panel of the day and ready to collapse. Instead, I expect I'll be going to a party. And then another party for my old roommate's solo CD launch. (Go, Scott!) It's a good thing I have a week of vacation to prepare for this.

Want to find me at CONvergence? Here are the places I'm committed to being.

Friday, July 2
9:30 a.m. Science and the Internet
Atrium 7
Exploring the sources for scientific information online. Where can you find real scientific information and where will you find bad research, bad data and bad findings?
Greg Laden, PZ Myers, G. David Nordley, Stephanie Zvan

2:00 p.m. Reading, Vista Suite (22nd floor)

3:30 p.m. Bulls**t Detection Kit: Why Pseudo-Science Doesn't Deliver
Atrium 7
Exploring pseudo science and why it is highly improbable. It is called pseudo science for a reason.
Ted Meissner (mod), David Walbridge, Greg Laden, Steve Thoms, Bug Girl, Stephanie Zvan, Lois Schadewald

8:30 p.m. Physics or Fantasy?
Atrium 7
Perpetual motion machines, cold fusion, free energy and other fake science stories. Where do they come from and what does physics really allow?
Jennifer Ouellette, Pamela Gay, Stephanie Zvan, Lois Schadewald

After that, expect to find me at the Skepchick party, then at Scott Keever's CD release party, assuming I haven't spontaneously converted to a puddle of goo from spending that much time on stage in one day. Yes, that's just one day.

Saturday, July 3
12:30 p.m. Science and the Media
Atrium 7
Ways in which scientific findings are reported and distorted by the media.
Bridget Landry, Rachel Maccabee, Stephanie Zvan, Greg Laden

There are, of course, more parties that evening.

Sunday, July 4
12:30 p.m. Smart vs. Intelligent
Atrium 7
You don't have to be a genius to think critically.
Ted Meissner (mod), Maria Walters, Stephanie Zvan, Amy Davis Roth, Debbie Goddard, Pamela Gay

Also on Sunday, another old roommate, Anna Waltz, is reading at 11:00 a.m., and another member of my writers group, Dana Baird, is reading at 3:30 p.m., both in the Vista Suite.

Throughout the weekend, there's plenty of other great programming too, with more Skepchickcon, a bunch of Doctor Who programming, and this year's theme: villains. Put together the rest of your schedule here.

June 24, 2010

Hope Visits Pandora

It's Greg Laden's birthday. Last year, I gave him a story. He seemed to like it, so I thought I'd give him another this year. Happy birthday, Greg.

Hope Visits Pandora

Pandora heard the smallest of noises and lifted her head off the table. "Oh, you." She didn't bother to brush the tears off her cheeks, but she did scrub surreptitiously at her running nose. She glared through wet eyelashes. "What do you want?"

Apparently oblivious to Pandora's disgust, Hope smiled. "I didn't want you to be alone."

"Alone!" Pandora snorted, then wiped her nose again. "I'm always alone."

"I know." Hope nodded. "That could change, though. Anytime, really. A friend, a lover, Epimetheus…"

"Stop it!" Pandora lifted her chin and stared steadily at Hope. "Epimetheus went to look for his brother, with more enthusiasm than preparation, as usual. Zeus won't let Prometheus be found, and he certainly won't let him go. Epimetheus won't be coming back." Her words sounded rehearsed.

"But he could."

"Stop." Pandora put out a hand to ward off Hope's words. "Oh, please, just stop. I can't think that right now."

Hope tilted her head. "Or you could go look for him."

Pandora laughed, a harsh sound that became harsher as she choked. "It's Epimetheus. He could have gone anywhere. If he's even still alive."

"I'm sure he is."

"Sure!" Pandora snorted. "Of course you're sure. You're always sure! Why can't you just let me let go? I can't wait forever. I can't. I just…can't." She put her head back down and sobbed.

Hope seated her tiny self on the table. She reached out and began to awkwardly pat Pandora's shoulder. Pat, pat. Pat, pat. On and on she went until Pandora shrugged her away. "Enough."

Hope rested her hands in her lap and cocked her head again. "How goes fighting evil?"

This time, Pandora's laugh was quieter. "Oh, I'm still fighting, if that's what you mean." She looked up. "I have no idea why, but I'm still fighting."

"Surely you make a difference?"

"Do I? I don't know how I'd even know anymore." Pandora nodded toward a box--the box--sitting in the corner of the room. "It's as empty as it was the day I let you go. All the evils are still free."

Hope shrugged. "It hasn't happened yet. That doesn't mean it can't be done. Maybe if you try harder?"

"Harder? How can I try harder?" Pandora looked incredulous, tears flowing freely again. "I'm so tired I can't see straight. Every part of me hurts. I fell asleep sitting right here at the table last night. I was too tired to go to bed. There is no 'harder.' I'm not sure there's even a 'more.' I've been fighting too long to have anything left."

Hope nodded. "So you need a rest. Then you can try again."

"Again and again and again! Always again! More and more and more you want from me! Why can't you just let me be?!"

"Because if I leave you alone, nothing will happen."

Pandora sniffed. "Nothing is happening now."

Hope leaned forward until she was nearly nose to nose with Pandora. Her eyes burned with the implacable fire that Pandora somehow managed to forget between her visits. Her voice was calm and quiet and as undeniable as the light in her eyes. "But it might."

After a long minute, Pandora managed to look away. Her eyes landed on the box. "I thought you were going to save us, but you're the worst of the lot, aren't you."

"Yes." Hope's voice was still calm.

"I don't know why I let you out." Pandora shook her head. "Why didn't I learn after the other evils escaped?"

"Because you needed me."

Pandora looked back into those flaming eyes. She realized her own were clear. She'd stopped crying without noticing. She took a deep breath and nodded. "Tomorrow, then."

Hope smiled. "Tomorrow."

June 23, 2010

Raining Oil

I have nothing to add to this.

Gun Factoids--Concealed Carry

One of the tidbits you often hear in gun control arguments is that states with concealed carry laws have lower rates of violent crime. Based on 2006 data from the Census Bureau and the FBI, here's how things broke down.

Violent Crime Total (incidence per 100,000)
Unrestricted Carry: 425
Shall Issue (state law requires issuance of permit): 476
May Issue (issuing authority allowed some discretion): 475
No Issue: 481

So, yes, states allowing concealed carry did have slightly lower violent crime rates in 2006. Violent crime here means attempted and completed assault, murder, robbery, rape, and sexual assault. Let's see how concealed carry does with completed crimes. Note that the lowest numbers here are going to fluctuate the most from year to year.

Unrestricted Carry: 8.3
Shall Issue: 1.9
May Issue: 1.3
No Issue: 4.2

Aggravated Assault
Unrestricted Carry: 310
Shall Issue: 294
May Issue: 277
No Issue: 272

Forcible Rape
Unrestricted Carry: 51
Shall Issue: 35
May Issue: 24
No Issue: 24

Unrestricted Carry: 3.7
Shall Issue: 5.8
May Issue: 5.4
No Issue: 6.1

Hmm, not looking great for concealed carry, except for unrestricted carry in the category with the lowest, most variable numbers. While it's not a violent crime, let's also look at the breakdown for suicide.

Unrestricted Carry: 18
Shall Issue: 13
May Issue: 9
No Issue: 9


Now, for caveats: This is one year of data. Rates vary from year to year. None of this is meant to suggest, on its own at least, that a strongly interpreted right to carry is bad for you or makes you less. What it is meant to do is demonstrate how small a piece of the picture the cited (slightly) lower rate of violent crime actually is. It doesn't do nearly enough to prove that guns make you safer or stop crimes from being completed.

Remember that the next time you hear it.

June 22, 2010

Gun Protection--Best-Case Scenario

So you've read my last post>, on how poorly a gun protects you in the home, and you've said to yourself, "Self, those numbers are pretty far apart, but hell, that's just robbery." And you're right.

So what's the best-case scenario for guns protecting their owners? Find out at Quiche Moraine.

June 21, 2010

How Well Does Your Gun Protect You?

The last time there was a discussion on Greg Laden's blog regarding the necessity of firearms, the topic turned to home invasion, which is the classic protect-the-women-and-children fantasy scenario for gun nuts (which are a distinct subset of gun owners). I pulled some statistics to find out what kind of protection guns afforded. Since the subject of relative safety continues to come up, I'm reposting and expanding the information here for handy reference.

In 2006, approximately 447,000 robberies were reported to the FBI. Of these, 14.3% occurred in the home and 42.2% involved a firearm, for about 27,000 home robberies involving a firearm annually. I'm assuming, in the absence of better data, that firearm involvement is evenly distributed between home and non-home robberies, although a higher level of injury encountered in workplace robberies suggests that this may be overstating the involvement of firearms in home robberies.

This translates to an annual, per capita, U.S. rate of firearm-related, home robberies of about 0.0001. Given a risk of injury in all robberies of about 35% (pdf) (with the same caveats about workplace robberies given above), that gives us approximately 9,000 firearm-related home-robbery injuries annually, or an annual per capita risk of 0.00003. Given that the FBI reports only 1,000 deaths during any robberies in all of 2006, the total annual per capita risk of death during robbery during home invasion, using the same assumptions, would be 0.0000002. In other words, tiny.

There are other elements of real crime patterns that don't match the heroic family-saving home-invasion scenario. Random violence is rare compared to our expectations, with only 60% of the robberies in 2006 (pdf) being committed by strangers and with almost no difference in the rate at which victims require medical treatment between stranger and nonstranger interactions (12% versus 10%).

Also, heroics aren't guaranteed to succeed. In less than 30% of all 2006 robberies in which another party tried to intervene did the action have a positive effect on the situation. In about 16%, it had a negative effect. This is definitely a net benefit, but it isn't a certain one, and the statistics on resistance with all weapons accounts for less than 2% of the situations evaluated.

In contrast, the CDC reported 2006 firearm-related deaths at about 31,000 (pdf), roughly the same as the total number of home robberies--not injuries, just death. Approximately 60% of these were accident (1,000) or suicide (17,000). Yes, some of those suicides would have tried another method, but firearm suicides are about three times as likely to succeed as the next most successful method, bringing specifically firearm-related non-homicide deaths in around 13,000.

Homicide deaths from all methods were about 19,000. Gun homicides accounted for 13,000 of these. Given that 12% of homicide victims in that year were known to have been killed by family, that gives us another 1,000 or so people killed by guns kept by them or someone close to them, for a total of 14,000. For death, not injury.

I'll take the risk of injury during robbery.

June 20, 2010

It's Alive!


I'm laid up with a cold and feeling neither particularly creative nor entertaining. Instead of hanging out here, go check out The Thoughtful Animal, where Jason is talking about social capital and online bullying in the beautifully titled "The Blogosphere Is Alive With The Sounds of Bullying." The discussion in the comments about why something may or may not constitute bullying is also quite interesting.

Or if you're feeling about as energetic as I am and that sort of thing doesn't pick you up, here is the best argument I can find for why Siouxsie Sioux should record the next James Bond movie title song.

Here Comes That Day

You wanted life uncomplicated, only pleasantries
And like a fool, you thought life could be cheated of life's realities

June 17, 2010

Whither Allies

A repost, a companion to "What Is an Ally?"

I'm back from ScienceOnline09, with an inaccessible laptop hard drive holding all my notes, and I've gotten one mostly full night's sleep in the last four. It would be wiser of me to hold off on blogging contentiously until I'm better rested. In fact, I have a ton of comments I'm dying to respond to. Instead, I'm writing this, and I ask a small amount of indulgence in the reading, because I think it's important enough to write even under less than ideal conditions.

I had a number of very nice chats with people before the sessions they were moderating about the topic of the session. Not surprising. Most of the moderators were a little overprepared and very invested in the topic, as they should be.

One of these discussions was with Zuska in the hotel bar. We were talking about lurkers and who reads her blog, and I made a comment about the risks allies take in opening their mouths and the inevitability of screwing something up. She agreed and said something about the responsibilities of allies when that happens.

Janet is now saying something very similar at Adventures in Ethics and Science.

You can't tell just by looking which purported allies have had a crystalizing experience. When people who say they are allies let you down in the crunch (which happens a lot), it's hard to trust that any ally can be relied upon. Thus, one lesson for allies (beyond the importance of being reliable at crunch-time) is not to be surprised or offended when you're not immediately recognized as an ally. Saying you are doesn't count for nearly as much as showing you are.

Let me say something now: You can't count on me.

Of course, you can't count on your parents to step up when your uncle is being an ass about your college choices. You can't count on your best friend to know what you need to hear about your date. You can't count on your sweetie(s) to know what you want for your birthday. You can't count on you to do what's best for you when you're feeling tired and unmotivated. As comfortable as it would be and as useful as it is sometimes to act as though the opposite were true, you can't count on people, even the people who are supposed to be on your side.

There are a couple of reasons you can't count on me. The first one is implicit in the examples I just gave. I don't know what you need or want at any given moment. The fact that I recognize you as part of a marginalized group tells me that you're marginalized. That's all it tells me, because part of being an ally is recognizing that marginalized and stereotyped groups are just as diverse (if not more so) than the mainstream.

The second reason is one I brought up talking to Zuska. I'm an ally, in part, because I don't deal well with authority. This means that it's easier for me than for some to look at the reasons given for marginalization and say that they don't make sense. However, it also means I take a step back any time someone says allies should behave in a particular way.

On top of that, I'm dealing with my own issues of marginalization. Some are relatively small and many are problems of privilege, but they're still real and part of the reason I understand marginalization. I may not have brought them up because, well, I've been listening. But that doesn't mean that I don't sometimes have to take a step out of your fight to fight my own.

So, no, you can't count on me. What you can do, though, is tell me what you would like me to do in a given situation, know that I'm likely to say an enthusiastic "yes" if I can (as I did a couple times this weekend), and know that I don't make promises lightly. Well, you really can't know those last two, but those are the areas where I want to be called on the carpet if I screw up.

That's a lot of speaking for myself, I know. But in the end, that's all I can do. I'm not your ally because I feel sorry for you and think you need caretaking. I'm your ally because I believe you have things to say I want to hear. I'm your ally because I believe in the intrinsic value of diversity and basic human dignity.

I hope that's enough. It may not be, in which case, you have every right to decide I'm not your ally. That would sadden me, but I understand that trying to change your mind would waste energy we could both put to use better elsewhere, just as trying to change me would be.

We don't achieve diversity by insisting that we all be alike.


As an aside that's nothing of the sort, I also want to respond to DrugMonkey's comments to Janet's post. If you follow this blog or DrugMonkey, you'll know that there was a big to do last month involving a commenter on DrugMonkey who I and some other DrugMonkey regulars felt was a trollish poster child.

Now, I had two purposes in mind in pointing out the trolling. One, I've developed an interest (perhaps even an unhealthy fascination) with that kind of thing, and two, I wanted to give people a place away from the fray to react to the manipulation. I thought both worked.

Then I saw this comment from DM:

Some, see Stephanie Z's post, consider you to be nothing more than an unrelenting disruptive troll. and suggest that I should ban your ass.

I was concerned briefly that DM really thought I was suggesting the troll should be banned, but I didn't say anything. For one thing, he was delivering an excellent lesson. I didn't want to interupt. And there are always more chances to talk about trolls and how they should be handled.

[sigh] Always.

But when it keeps coming up, I get more concerned.

Fascinating. And by this may we conclude that those who may have the privilege of ignoring said clueless idiots' obnoxiousness in case they are redeemable are themselves proving to be bad allies? Is it letting down in the crunch to fail to come to the same conclusions as those with said finite time and energy?

For the record, DM, no.

As I said above, I think it's silly to expect or even want monolithic behavior from people supporting diversity. Yes, there are times when a massed voice is helpful, but aside from that, well, it's a lot like my take on science communication. The people we need to reach, in the mainstream or in other marginalized groups, are not monolithic. We need as many ways to reach them as there are people to be reached.

In addition to places for people to sit and rest outside the line of fire, we need both carrots and sticks, and it's really hard for the same person to provide both at the same time. So as far as I'm concerned, as long as you can handle all the mixed metaphors, I'm happy to apply the pressure and allow you to show someone which way they need to move to get out from under it.

That's what allies are for.

June 15, 2010

What Is an Ally?

We in the blogosphere very rarely seem to understand what an ally is. I'm not really sure how it happened. Allies in the culture wars aren't appreciably different than military or political allies, but somehow, the meaning of the word has changed online. We've gone from "In everyday English usage, allies are people, groups, or nations that have joined together in an association for mutual benefit or to achieve some common purpose, whether or not explicit agreement has been worked out between them" to the assumption that the act of alliance comes with specific obligations and that people are "bad allies" or not allies at all if particular things are done or left undone.

Read on at Quiche Moraine.

June 14, 2010

Objective Values

It is June, which means we're due another installment of Are My Values Based in Objective Reality? Not sure what I'm talking about? Start with this discussion of skepticism:

I deeply and strongly disagree with the separation of ways of thinking (including scientific skepticism) and political perspectives. It is part of the progressive political perspective to be a rational thinker. Explicitly. It is part of the Republican Tea-baggging Yahooistic political perspective to be .... well, something else. Somewhat explicitly. It would be perilous to ignore this. It is explicitly part of the modern Atheist movement to think skeptically. A religious person is not thinking skeptically about that aspect of their lives, and if they were, they'd be some form of atheist or agnostic, and so on.

Don't miss the argument in the comments, which strikingly captures the opposing view, or the comments sections of the linked blog posts. It was a rather debateful April.

May brought us reactions to Sam Harris's claim that science can provide a foundation for morality.

I think Harris is following a provocative and potentially useful track, but I'm not convinced. I think he's right in some of the examples he gives: science can trivially tell you that psychopaths and violent criminals and the pathologies produced by failed states in political and economic collapse are not good models on which to base a successful human society (although I also think that the desire for a successful society is not a scientific premise…it's a kind of Darwinian criterion, because unsuccessful societies don't survive). However, I don't think Harris's criterion — that we can use science to justify maximizing the well-being of individuals — is valid. We can't. We can certainly use science to say how we can maximize well-being, once we define well-being…although even that might be a bit more slippery than he portrays it.

Once again, there is little agreement, except, perhaps, that the concept is intriguing.

And now it is June, and Greta Christina is taking a shot at the argument that some values are intrinsically and objectively more ethical.

Goldstein's argument is this. The basic philosophical underpinning of ethics (as opposed to its psychological and evolutionary underpinnings) are:

(a) the starting axiom that we, ourselves, matter;

and (b) the understanding that, if we step back from ourselves and view life from an outside perspective, we have to acknowledge that we don't, cosmically speaking, matter more than anyone else; that other people matter to themselves as much as we matter to ourselves; and that any rules of ethics ought to apply to other people as much as they do to ourselves. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," and all that. (Some version of the Golden Rule seems to exist in every society.)

In other words, the philosophical underpinning of ethics are that they ought to be applicable to everyone. They ought to be universalizable.

And liberal values -- fairness and harm -- are universalizable.
As usual, Greta does an excellent job of laying out her ideas without making overreaching claims. Go read the rest.

June 10, 2010

Disability Bingo

I'm deeply ambivalent on the subject of social-interaction bingo cards. On the one hand, I see them warp discussions, as people who are arguing with each other shoehorn nuanced statements into dogwhistle boxes in the name of...oh, I don't even pretend to understand why someone would have that kind of discussion in the first place. On the other hand, they really can be quick, accessible, visual introductions to the kinds of things people say over and over again that are far less than helpful, or even thoughtful.

My friend Lynne knows how to use a bingo card, which is only one of the reasons she's awesome.

Caitlin is not "confined" to a wheelchair (a term I saw used recently in another LJ community that drives me absolutely nuts). She uses a wheelchair. It is a tool, that helps her to be mobile. Like a car, but smaller. In a world that, frankly, isn't as well designed for alternative modes of mobility as it should be, given how many of us over time will need to use similar tools.

We are not trying to "overcome" or fix Caitlin's disabilities. We are adapting our life and hers to her current abilities so that she can have the fullest life possible, in a society that is not particularly structured for her to, you know, leave the house on a regular basis, interact with other people, etc.

Don't worry, Lynne doesn't leave people with just a list of don'ts, which tend to make people self-conscious and lead to the kind of avoidance that isolates people with disabilities. She gives things you can do when someone else's disability leaves you feeling helpless. You should read them all, so I'm only going to share one:

Be the person who helps to drive demand from libraries and publishers alike for more stories about people with disabilities. Buy them. Read them. Read them to your kids.

Lynne also links indirectly to a fiction contest at the new Redstone Science Fiction (the first issue of which includes an interview with a payload rack officer on the ISS). The contest is asking for short fiction that doesn't use disability as a shorthand for character traits or group identity or treat it as something to be cured and which is set in a future that sees and accommodates disabilities. If you're a writer, I strongly encourage you to play. Even if you don't win, you'll come away with a story that will do someone some good.

Off to go plot.

June 09, 2010

Yours Truly, BP

National Resources Defense Council

Why Prayer Is Nonsense

Jason has written a blog epic at Lousy Canuck. After a stray comment about prayer being useless in a particular situation, and the argument that ensued, he's taken a systematic look at the arguments for and against prayer. Go check it out.

June 06, 2010

The Christian Colonies

My favorite dead relatives, however, are the ones who were kicked out of the Colony of Massachusetts for being the wrong kind of Puritan, which means, as long as we're clearing up matters of religious misconception, pure in matters of doctrine, not without sin. They'd come to the colonies, as many had, because they couldn't practice their brand of religion in a land where the state was the head of the church. What they found (or perhaps helped to found, as the records aren't very clear) was a colony where the church was the head of the state, just as many would like the situation to be today.

There's no doubt that some of the colonies were founded as Christian settlements. Does that mean the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation? Find out at Quiche Moraine.

June 03, 2010

Reconstructing Criticism: Collegiality

"Because I said so" may be four of the most satisfying words in the English language. Unfortunately, they are almost exactly the wrong thing to say, or even imply, when delivering constructive criticism.

It isn't that a person in a position of authority can't deliver constructive criticism. They can and do frequently, since human resources management is the largest group to have embraced its utility. That doesn't there aren't problems that lie in combining the weight of authority with the criticism.

The first problem is that authority is all too often associated with punishment, which makes it much harder for recipients of criticism to hear it correctly. Listening or reading attentively is incompatible with wondering how much trouble is on its way and incompatible with a fight-or-flight response to fear. Setting aside this aspect of authority up front ("No, you're not in trouble") allows the message itself to come across more clearly.

Someone else's authority is also not a good motivator under your average low-stakes situation. In high-stakes, strong-threat situations, yes, but those don't generally involve constructive criticism. Under normal circumstances, people's internal motivations are much stronger than outside authority, particularly in the long term and particularly in the immediate absence of that authority. Invoking internal motivations, showing people why change is needed rather than leaning on authority, is much more likely to effect lasting changes.

Closely related to that is the problem of defiance. Constructive criticism is that which builds the criticized party up, not tears them down. Criticism that relies on authority reinforces the recipient's subordinate position. Who wants to be on the receiving end of that? And we don't have to. Playgrounds have long taught us that the proper response to "Because I said so" is "Make me." That simple retort undermines an adult in an actual position of authority almost as well as it does a bossy kid, setting up a power struggle in which the recipient of the criticism loses by making the desired change.

So you're a person with some authority who wants to deliver constructive criticism. How do you do it? Focus on the reasons for change without being one of them. Yes, that is harder than it sounds. You can point to shared goals, but you're better off pointing to the individual's goals, since supporting your goals supports your authority. You can listen more than you talk, particularly about why the current state of things exists. You can enlist the recipient of the criticism in making a plan for change. You can have the discussion in their space instead of yours. You can do almost anything sincere to level the power dynamic between you and make you peers for the purposes of the criticism.

The one thing you absolutely can't do, of course, is lean on "Because I said so" to do the work for you.