February 28, 2009

Atheists Talk--Massimo Pigliucci

How to Tell the Difference Between Science and Bunk
Atheists Talk #0059, Sunday, March 1, 2009

Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, of the Stonybrook Institute in New York, is a biologist and a philosopher who has published about a hundred technical papers and several books on evolutionary biology. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, selected "for fundamental studies of genotype by environmental interactions and for public defense of evolutionary biology from pseudoscientific attack." Massimo is also an atheist and has published articles in Skeptical Enquirer, Philosophy Now, The Philosopher's Magazine and American Atheist Magazine.

Greg Laden, who has been a frequent and popular guest on "Atheists Talk," is an evolutionary anthropologist and professor at the University of Minnesota. On Sunday, Greg turns the tables and does the interviewing, talking to Massimo about Ken Miller and the role of god in tweaking the genome at strategic moments, whether or not man is some sort of elevated creature according to biologists who should know better, and the role of pseudoscience in weakening the public's understanding of evolution.

Produced by Minnesota Atheists. Directed by Mike Haubrich. Hosted by Stephanie Zvan. Interview by Greg Laden.

Podcast Coming Soon!
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Listen to AM 950 KTNF on Sunday at 9AM 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.

February 27, 2009

Assessing the Odds

A while ago, I looked at the renewed proposals to expand gambling in Minnesota and concluded that it didn’t make sense, in a time of declines in the national gaming industry, to spend money on new gambling infrastructure in the hopes that it would start generating revenue soon enough to be of help. At the time, I noted that state lottery revenue was up in a bare majority of states, but numbers for Minnesota weren’t available. They are now.

I'm doing my heavy blogging for the day over at Quiche Moraine. Today I continue looking at whether adding more gambling as a source of state revenue makes any sense for Minnesota.

Class Warfare

Analysis: Obama plan to finance agenda with tax hikes on rich elicits class warfare cries

The budget outline includes activist initiatives on energy, health care, education and climate change.

It would boost taxes on the wealthy, oil companies and other businesses while cutting Medicare and Medicaid payments to insurance companies and hospitals to make way for a $634 billion down payment on universal health care. It would also limit charitable and other tax deductions for the affluent and trim spending on government subsidies to big farms.

Predictably, Republicans complained, much as they had done during last year's presidential campaign, that Obama was pitting the haves against the have-nots.

Why is it only class warfare when those who aren't wealthy are asking for something? What is it the rest of the time? Class occupation? Class siege? Classicide? Or is it just that only the rich have class?

Asked whether the class-warfare argument could complicate White House efforts to win support for some of its big priorities, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said, "No. And I think it's important to understand that what the president has enumerated in his budget today is precisely the blueprint and series of promises that he made over the course of two years in a campaign ... that the American people voted for."

February 25, 2009

The Best Love Songs

...are the ones that look beyond the first blush.

I used to think I didn't like love songs, that they were all kind of banal and repetitive. Cute, but not very interesting. Then I discovered it was a Tolstoy problem [pointless Anna Karenina reference]. It was only the perfectly happy, love-makes-the-world-perfect love songs that I didn't like. Luckily, they're not all like that.

The Ship Song

...but when I crawl into your arms, everything comes tumbling down.

I'm not sure which of these two songs is my favorite. I like the simplicity of the Nick Cave, particularly this version. The live version of the Marc Almond is a little more thoroughly produced than the album version, which I prefer. But the Marc Almond song is, in the end, a little happier, and it turns out that I like happy love songs, as long as that's not all they are.

Under Your Wing

...and the passing of my youth seems like a new beginning.

Inspired by Scicurious, who wrote about "The most annoying love song ever written."

February 24, 2009

A Royal Scandal?

Rumors swirled in the monarchy of Heckofalot today, as the Twitter account of The Princess filled with what at first appeared to be postmodern song lyrics:


and later lapsed into apparent code:



Residents were first amused but rapidly grew concerned for the safety of the royal family. They were promptly reassured by The Prince (or is he The Butler?).

Ummm... Ignore those tweets from @bethanyg. The "Tiny Tyrant" got to her machine before I could close the lid.

The Princess threw her voice and authority behind the story.

Sorry - while I was at Arts Advocacy day, @duchessbeatrix decided to reinvent social media — on my account.

However, rather than calm the masses, these Tweets only raised new concerns. Her Grace, the Duchess of Heckofalot has long been known to Tweet in her own distinct voice.

Thank you to everyone who attended the my official birthday celebration at the palace. Thanks to everyone else for wishing you could.

This charmingly despotic voice is also in evidence at Her Grace's blog.

Unlike other monarchies, we do not grant knighthood to any random pop music star or captain of industry that wonders in the door (Britain I am looking at you). We take such titles seriously here. To become a knight in Heckofalot, I will beat you on the head with my scepter until you cry and beg me for a title. Not only will this prove you worthy but it also makes me giggle.

None of these official communications did anything to prepare the citizens of Heckofalot for today's Tweets. "Is something wrong with our dear Duchess?" they wondered aloud. "Surely, The Princess and The Prince (or is he The Butler?) would tell us if anything were amiss!"

But that was only the public speculation. Away from the prying eyes of the pervasive social media, other theories were put forth. People spoke in hushed tones of thwarted invasions and aborted palace coups. They also whispered of a
theory that your correspondent trembles to commit to print.

Yes, in their offline privacy, the citizens of Heckofalot turned to one another and asked, "Does our Duchess tipple while she Tweets?"

February 23, 2009

A Year on Propranolol

The part I remember best is waking up with my head down on my arms. On my desk. With the voices around me, it only took a moment to figure out where I was. Oh, crap. I decided I must have fallen asleep at work. What could be more embarrassing than that?

Then I remembered.

I know the science on propranolol, emotion and memory is all terribly last week, but I've never promised or even particularly tried to be a current events blogger. Also, I still owe Juniper a blog post, and while this isn't that post, it gets at some of the later stages of how my emotional life changed from child to adult.

I still can't say what switch flipped between my junior and senior years of high school and took me from deeply depressed and anxious to moderately functional. My social circle hadn't changed much, but the individuals I hung out with within the circle did. It might have been the one newish friend who I knew wanted something from me but who didn't reject me when it wasn't something I could give. Come to think of it, I can't imagine how that lack of rejection could have been anything other than critical.

Whatever happened in high school, time and success and independence were all very good for me. So was Ben, although that is, again, another story. Eventually, depression was brief (still despair-deep, but brief) and tended to be set off by triggered memories.

The anxiety never went away, though, as might be expected. (Ed, I promise. I'll keep reading you even if you stop posting about my life.) I still haven't learned to fall asleep properly when anything remotely exciting is happening, much less anything where people are relying on me. For most of my life, the time before sleep has been filled with obsessive deconstruction of the prior day and planning for the next--or fiction. I prefer the fiction.

Waking life was hardly free of anxiety either. As an adult, I've been one of the people whom others look at and ask, "Can you do this?" Usually it's something I haven't done before, so I'm as curious as they are. I rarely say, "No," but this tends to leave me with big unknowns in my life, big opportunities to disappoint. I'm not fond of disappointing people.

I was over 30 before I realized it, but I'd been getting migraines on a very regular basis since at least junior high. I didn't know that's what they were, because in a way, I was one of the lucky ones. Only a few migraines a year actually hurt. For the rest of them, the debility came from strange visual and somatosensory effects, hypersensitivity and confusion.

I love my doctor. When I walked in with a big list of symptoms that could, even in this day and age, get me labeled "hysterical" and said, "I think I get migraines, although mostly they don't really hurt," she pulled out her PDA and started checking off symptoms rather than immediately referring me to a psychologist. We tried a few drugs for treatment of symptoms, including some stunningly bitter pills that dissolved on the tongue. They worked, but they were nothing that insurance was going to cover at the frequency I got migraines, and they did nothing to cut down the frequency.

Then she asked me how I felt about abortion. She already knew I wasn't planning to have kids, but she wanted to be sure I wouldn't feel compelled to carry to term if I accidentally became pregnant while on propranolol. If I would have, she'd have prescribed something else. The idea of congenital defects was obviously quite disturbing to her, pregnant as she was.

With a few more checks of my blood pressure against the lowest recommended pressure for the drug (I was borderline), she sent me off with strict instructions to either come in or check my blood pressure with one of the in-store cuffs every few days for the next few weeks and a six-month prescription. Six more months were to follow if it helped and didn't produce undesirable side effects. After that, with a little luck, I'd be migraine-free.

Believe me, I checked my blood pressure. Getting used to propranolol felt almost as strange as the migraines. I felt so light. It wasn't lightheadedness, except when I stood up too quickly. (I learned how to get out of bed slowly, in stages.) I was just light.

It took me a while to realize I couldn't get really upset if I wanted to. I could still recognize things that were wrong, and I still acted to fix them. I just didn't do it riding on a wave of righteous adrenaline. I could get angry and act angry, but I couldn't feel the same degree of anger I was used to. Flooding my body with adrenaline no longer produced any noticeable results. My reputation for calm in the face of chaos became more than just me putting on a calm face to keep others from freaking out and getting me going. It was now true.

The same thing happened with anxiety, of course. I didn't get any less ambitious in what I attempted, but facing failure no longer raised all the ghosts of failure past. I can't tell you whether I thought about my childhood during that time, thus stripping it of the negative emotions attached to it. I can tell you that the longer I spent without anxiety, the further away those memories got. That anxious kid became less and less someone I knew. I'd already trained myself not to think of my childhood often. The drug removed the emotional triggers that kept me remembering whether I wanted to or not. It let the present run on uninterrupted.

Maybe that could have been a bad thing, an unexamined life and all, except that I'm nothing if not introspective. Not only had I mined my memories for the lessons they could provide, but I had lived in them far longer than they deserved. Distance was a mercy and a pleasure.

The propranolol got rid of the migraines, too. Mostly anyway. I still get them occasionally, just as I haven't completely trained myself not to respond to non-immediate threats with a burst of adrenaline, particularly around election time. And I still haven't learned to sleep well.

Still, a year on propranolol was one of the best things I've ever done for myself, even considering the waking up at work.

I'd been sitting at my desk, having just raised my soda, when someone came around the corner to ask me something. I quickly swallowed--too quickly, setting off one of those pointless but painful esophageal spasms. Pretending I wasn't about to gasp with pain, I turned to listen to my coworker. When I felt the roaring in my ears, I took a couple of deep breaths to hold back the black, but it was too late.

People look at you differently when they're afraid you might drop on them at any time. A bottle of prescription drugs and the explanation, "I swallowed funny," don't quite cut it. They gather around. They want you to lie down and take things easy and reassure them several times a day for the next several weeks that, really, you feel fine. No, really.

Yes, passing out at work because your blood pressure is low and doesn't respond well to pain is ever so much more embarrassing than falling asleep.

February 22, 2009


Home again, having paid out much sleep debt, eaten much good food, shriveled my fingers in the hot tub and spent many hours in silly and serious conversation with friends. This weekend's game of choice was apparently creating the world's most insipid revolutionary slogans.

  • Foreground the optical substrate!
  • Up with the hoi polloi!
  • Inconvenience the bourgeoisie!

We were also the zoo exhibit of choice for several does with yearlings.

"Stay here between us, kids. You'll be safe. They're behind glass."

"Why don't they do anything? They're just staring at us. Do they act like that in the wild?"

"No, honey. They're much more dangerous in the wild."

"Eek! One moved! Run away!"

Anyway, off to bed so as not to undo all the good I just did myself.

February 21, 2009


Yeah, still unplugged. But I'll be back. And since my last post about music got me friends showing up at the concert, I'll let you know where I'll be (in April). The song just seems appropriate.

I Disappear

How could I resist? It's all I want, and now I guess I've got it.

February 20, 2009

Gone Away

I'm taking a vacation from the internet this weekend. At least mostly. We'll see how the withdrawal goes. I might not be able to stand it.

Okay, I'm making it fairly difficult for me to get on the internet this weekend. Good enough? In the meantime, check out someone else.

I just met Crystal and Vic this weekend, although I've liked Crystal's blog for a while. I recommend going to find out why she's just not all that concerned with online privacy. Vic's a little more concerned, but he's talking about sociopaths, so that seems appropriate.

Mme. Piggy is totally stealing our shtick with a restaurant review. I mean, sure, her blog's called Food Devotions and Kermit Love, and she was doing it first, but is that any excuse? And why haven't I had pho?

Muse is ranting. I always like that. This time, it's about epigenetics.

Scicurious is reminding me (as though I needed it) why I love her so. She's answered the "Why Am I a Scientist?" question that Ambivalent Academic started. She says she just sort of fell into it, but everything else about her answer says she was made for the role.

Jessica pointed me at Pride and Predator. It's in Variety. It has to be true, right?

And oh, people are posting stories. Okay, Kelly's is a play, not a story: Waiting for Inspiration: A Writer’s Morality Play In Half An Act. Juniper's is actually lots of stories about getting malaria and the effects of trying to prevent it. Plus exploding taxis. PalMD finished his story of his trip to Honduras after Hurricane Mitch. Greg is still adding new Congo memoirs, although there's a rumor he's nearly done. And Quiche Moraine is starting its own nice little collection of stories.

Wait, why am I taking a break again?

February 19, 2009

Good Times

Considering how much corporate money went into keeping the Republicans in power for as long as they were, there's something satisfying about hearing a successful, large-company CEO saying (essentially), "I'm about as independent as they come, but I have to say it's strange to hear the Republicans talking about how the stimulus bill is going to mortgage our future. I mean, considering what they did, I think they pretty well had that covered."

Not as satisfying as watching an election in which the corporate money wasn't a big deal, but satisfying.

Extra satisfying when sitting across from the table from someone who had a coworker in my office nearly in tears with the nasty things he said about why McCain lost. That part was very nice.

That is all.

[Updated to hopefully fix an annoying search engine glitch.]

February 18, 2009

Origin of Species

Aah! I can't believe I forgot to post this last week. Oh, unfortunately still all too relevant. It is, of course, The Front, nerdcore master extraordinaire.

Origin of Species

Think how much like paradise that's gonna be.

February 16, 2009

The Ironies

Saturday's post was probably the most cynical thing I've ever written. I hope it was worthwhile, but I'm probably never going to know. What I do know is that I've burned up some self-respect and likely the trust of several of my readers. I'm sorry for that.

It went like this.

I'm not big on rules. I think that rules about communication are particularly harmful, since they control who gets to communicate. And it pisses me off when people try to control the avenues of communication.

Not that communication doesn't follow rules, but the rules are local, worked out between individuals--or not. When they're not, people have basically two choices. They can stop trying to communicate, or they can pretty much butt heads ad nauseum. This may or may not eventually end in the local rules being established.

Most of us tend to take this process for granted. We've been navigating the tricky waters of opening communication most of our lives. We don't think about it; we just do it. We develop strategies, which eventually become habits because they work most of the time.

Not all the time. And when they don't work, we've got not just head-butting going on. We've got head-butting between experts, because everybody's strategy works most of the time and it would be so much easier if everyone followed our rules and they could work all the time and, really, how hard is it to change just a little so my rules work again and they're not even really rules, just what works, and why won't you cooperate and are you trying to be difficult and it's just. not. that. hard.

But they're still rules. They're still arbitrary rules based on what works most of the time for most people. And my good friend was the one being told he should follow someone else's rules, which made my opinion on the matter suspect. I was being limited in my ability to communicate.

So I reversed the situation. I picked a different victim, one I was less associated with. I picked a bunch of things generally considered to be good ideas when communicating online, and I hit my victim with them as though they were written in stone.

It worked. People jumped on board and joined the finger-pointing, in comments and email (and thank you to the one person who told me by email that I was wrong). Despite me saying they weren't rules, someone called them my rules. Despite me pointing out that I was the last person who should be in a position to judge Janet, only one person commented that I was applying the rules differentially. I was, deliberately. I was a bully, plain and simple, hurting someone based on the fact that she didn't follow my rules, even as I refused to acknowledge that I was deeming them rules.

It took thirty-some comments and almost two days for someone to point that out. Even Becca, who is so good at spotting bullshit (some would say too good sometimes), didn't challenge me. I was starting to think I'd need to do it myself.

I can't tell you how many people didn't argue because I spoke with an intimidating authority. I can't tell you how many thought the rules were good ones that everyone should follow. All I can tell you is that it took far too long for someone to tell me I was as full of it as I set out to be.

Nobody should be able to do what I did. Communication requires two parties, and they should both (assuming sane adults) always have a say in the rules.

That part really is just that simple.

February 15, 2009

Oh, Hell Yes

I've mentioned previously that March will be a good music month. In addition to the new Madness album, I have tickets to a band I thought I'd never get to see live.

Yes, the Squirrel Nut Zippers have reformed and are doing another tour, starting in Minneapolis. Okay, so it's a little ironic that I'm seeing them here, having just been to their neck of the woods last month, but I'll take what I can get. How can I not, when they write songs just for me.

Put a Lid on It

Now the girl's in overdrive. Some of your pals want to stay alive.

Not to mention some truly sweet surreal Eastern European jazz fusion. No, I didn't know what that sounded like until I heard this song either. Now with awesome retro video.

The Ghost of Steven Foster

If we were made of cellophane, we'd all get stinking drunk much faster.

I got my tickets today. Sooo happy.

February 14, 2009

Unsolicited Advice for Maintaining the Appearance of Ethics Online

Please note that this post is intended as a poke in the eye. Many of my posts are. As a blogger, a writer of any kind, it is not my job to make you comfortable. It is my job to shake you up, to unsettle you, to make you question yourself and the world, and to remind you what the damned point was in the first place.

I will also note that when I interact with you online, I do have more than your words to go on. I can see to whom you're speaking. I can see who responds and how you, in turn, respond to them. I can see who your friends are. I can see the consistency of your words over time. Sometimes, I even get to see how you behave in real life. In short, I can see your broader behavior.

On to ethics. The following three recommended behaviors are not rules. They are simply things I note when I'm forming an opinion of someone's online ethics.

Own Your Context
There are no vacuums online. Everything you're doing happens in some context, perhaps more so when you belong to a blogging community. When you post something related to what is going on around you but don't acknowledge doing so--when in fact, you use language meant to apply to all--it's very easy for me to think you're doing something underhanded. It's easy for me to see you as trying to pretend you're above the fray while simultaneously wallowing in it. When you do it repeatedly (context), it gets all that much easier.

And it isn't just me seeing the coy relatedness. You can, of course, argue that you're not trying to do that at all, but...well, that's another discussion.

So how do you talk about these things in context? As I see it, you have three options:
  • State simply who you're talking about. "Yes, this is about him, although I think we can all take a lesson."
  • Point to the context by way of disclaimer. "I've been meaning to write about this. The timing is unfortunate, but this really is meant generally."
  • Wait for a different context.
And the immediate context for this discussion:
Let me know if I missed anything. There's less immediate context, too, but I think most of that is linked to further down.

One note, the last time Janet went context-free offering unsolicited advice to Greg, I responded in kind. It was fun, as a challenge, and I think I did it well. I'm tired of argument by elision, though, which is why this is here and in the form it is.

Own Your Bias
If The Daily Show has taught us nothing else, hopefully it has taught us that being professionally unbiased is nothing like the same thing as not having biases or even being able to successfully counteract those biases. We all have history online, friendly and unfriendly, with those around us. When you don't acknowledge that history, it makes it very easy for me to think you'd prefer that people not know about it. It makes it easy to believe that those biases are more important to your making the argument than the subject of the argument itself.

Again, you can always attempt to defend yourself....

And again, my advice for dealing with this is the same as the first two points under owning your context. Put your biases out there for people to look at and make up their own minds about. Talk about how you see them relating to your topic--or not.

I tend to think my biases in this situation are fairly well known, but I might be wrong, so here goes.
  • I like Isis. I read her blog regularly and have every intention of getting together with her for a drink when one of us finally makes it to the other's city. You're never going to hear about it, though. I also think her tendency to write passionately sometimes illuminates and sometimes obscures her message.
  • I like Samia's blog, though I'm always envious when she's just done something fun with her hair color (damned job). I have no idea whether we'd get on in person, but I'm sorry I didn't get the chance to find out at ScienceOnline.
  • I enjoyed meeting Zuska once I got over being shy and think her blog is a public service. We've certainly argued before, but I think it's always been about interpretation rather than anything fundamental. I was tickled and a bit awed to get a Facebook friend request from her.
  • I've never gotten into an argument with PalMD (nonoverlapping spheres), so there's nothing to balance the fangirl squee in that case. I'm going to stop talking before I look any sillier.
  • I think everyone knows that Greg and I are friends and co-conspirators, so I'm not sure what else to say about that. I like his wife and his daughter and his best friend and his sister, none of whom take prisoners. I've edited his work. See also what I said about Isis and writing passionately. The difference with Greg is that I'm much less diplomatic when I tell him he's not helping, but I do it mostly behind the scenes.
  • I always take a deep breath before getting into it with Janet. She's one of the few people with whom I've argued and never later found common cause. She's also the person who amused me by snubbing me at ScienceOnline (which I found out later was visible from across the room). It's pretty safe to say we're not fond of each other.
Does my dislike of Janet color what I have to say here? Judge for yourself. I'll add that the reasons I don't like Janet are mainly twofold. I think that for an ethicist, she asks too many questions in such a way that the answers she wants are implied. I also think she doesn't take responsibility for her own opinions. In other words, I think she tries to argue from an authority I'm not willing to grant her.

Own Your Evidence
Linking is not just an inherent good. It's also a way of tying yourself to your argument such that you are forced to examine it one more time. Beyond that, it allows your readers to decide whether you know what you're talking about. If you add quotes, it forces your readers to make those decisions. When you don't provide links and quotes, it makes it very easy for me to think you are misinterpreting the evidence willfully. It's very easy to think you haven't bothered to look at it, having already made up your mind what it says.

As always, the best way to defend yourself from these impressions is to do both in the first place. That allows people to decide whether this:

Your conveying that your audience ought to invest the time and effort to work out the most sympathetic possible interpretation of your words, but that you should not have to invest much time and effort in actually choosing those words to make your intended point clearly. If you dismiss your audience's claim to be hurt or offended by your words, you seem either to be claiming privileged access to that audience's hearts and minds, or to be saying that their hurt and offense doesn't really count.

matches this:

My comments about the Isis character (and the High School Girl bit) were probably over the top, for which I apologize, but clearly they were also not well stated and/or not well understood (and thus reacted to in a way that is probably over the top, but understandable) I'll just go ahead and take responsibility for the not well stated part.

They can decide whether this:

You might think those who took offense at what you said are just wrong to do so - because a good guy like yourself doesn't go around saying offensive things!

accurately describes this:

I do not expect Isis to NOT take offense at my comments. They were offered as critique and not everybody likes to hear critique.

They can decide whether this:

Indeed, in the unlikely event that we achieved perfect transmission and perfect reception in our attempts to communicate, we might still disagree about many of the things about which we were communicating.

is required as a response to this:

They were part of a larger critique that I've made pretty clear, and that some people seem to be getting and agreeing with, some getting and not agreeing with, and some not getting and not agreeing with. That is how things go on the internet.

Or this:

Communication is hard, but this is reason enough to share the labor involved. Intention and effect come apart even when we try our hardest to communicate clearly, but our attempts can become more successful if we pay attention to our past failures and treat as credible the reactions of the people with whom we were trying to communicate in our attempts.

as a response to this:

This is very good for me. Every time we go around like this (this is what, the third or fourth time over the last year and a half?) about how to be a good feminist or anti-racist, or about pseudonymity/anonymity, with part of the conversation coming from Teh Angreee (TM), I get more accustom to it. It makes it a little easier to see where people are coming from without the personal reaction.

In short, linking and quoting allow everyone to make up their own minds in full knowledge of the circumstances.

So that's it for the advice from me. I don't even really have anything to say in closing except: I hope you have fun putting together your carnival, Danielle. I'm looking forward to it.

Update: This post is not complete without this one.

February 13, 2009

Mother Chen's Journey

I was chatting with Scicurious today, and she reminded me that it had been a while since I'd posted the first story to the blog. She also said she liked fantasy but didn't like recognizing influences. Let me know who this works on that front, Sci.

Mother Chen's Journey

Once, not so very long ago, Mother Chen was a plump, busy, happy woman with three sons. Then her sons, like most sons of the time, left home to fight in the emperor's army. Mother Chen didn't understand why they must fight or whom they were fighting. She only knew the emperor had called for her sons.

Mother Chen remained plump and busy. She did not speak of being unhappy.

Then word came to the village that Mother Chen's oldest son had died in the service of the emperor. Auntie Li watched her friend with unease. Auntie Li had once had a son, in addition to her four daughters. He too had gone to the emperor's army and would never return. Mother Chen had no daughters to comfort her. Her husband was dead and her other sons far away.

Mother Chen wept. She completed the rituals for her dead son. Then she kept busy with the village children, although Auntie Li watched her grow thinner.

Auntie Li was afraid again when Mother Chen's second son died. Again Mother Chen wept. She observed the proper rituals. Then she started cooking. All the children of the village were enticed to Mother Chen's hut by the smells that flowed forth. Mother Chen herself grew thinner still.

Mother Chen's youngest son, who had gone everywhere with laughter on his lips before the emperor called, did not die in the emperor's service. One winter, he returned to the village and his mother, or most of him did. One leg, diseased and useless, had remained with the surgeons.

Auntie Li watched Mother Chen more closely. She was uncertain how her neighbor would react to her last son's injury, but Mother Chen seemed to rally. She stayed busy, although the village children felt neglected. She spent all her energy tending her son in his illness. All her words were lavished on the happy future they would have when he was well.

More people than Auntie Li worried now. It was obvious to everyone except Mother Chen that her son grew worse. Perhaps Mother Chen knew too. For all her happy words, she kept getting thinner.

Most of the village was relieved when Mother Chen's son died and she quietly performed the rituals. She wasn't taken ill. She didn't weep. They gave her their words of sympathy and went back to their own lives. Many had their own sons in the emperor's army to worry over.

Auntie Li kept watch that night from a mat by her door. When Mother Chen left her hut shortly before dawn, Auntie Li stood. Mother Chen moved slowly, bowed as though she had become old overnight. When she turned toward the river, Auntie Li spoke. "Gracious Mother Chen, where do you travel this fine morning?"

Auntie Li had feared that the cold embrace of the water was her friend's destination, but Mother Chen's answer was far more terrifying. She turned. She did not bow in greeting, only blinked slowly with an expression Auntie Li couldn't read. "I am going to ask the emperor why he took my sons."

Auntie Li gaped and gasped like a fish on the shore. Mother Chen turned away again before she found her voice. "Wait!" Mother Chen stopped and Auntie Li ran to her friend. "You can't go. They'll never let you see the emperor. You'll be killed."

She squinted at Mother Chen in the pale pre-dawn light. Mother Chen wore no robe or kerchief, and she carried nothing. "You haven't even anything to eat on your journey." Auntie Li held out her hand. "Come with me."

Mother Chen paused, then nodded. "I will eat, but then I must go see the emperor."

Auntie Li seated Mother Chen by her fire, then roused her two youngest daughters. Like their sisters, they were old enough to go to their own homes, but the emperor's war had taken all the suitable men. One daughter helped Auntie Li while the other ran to Mother Chen's hut. In no time, already bundled into her winter robe, Mother Chen was finishing the last of her rice.

Auntie Li was similarly dressed. Several packets of rice and fish hung in a bundle off her sash. She wasn't sure why she went with her friend. She knew they would never see the emperor, would likely never reach the capital. But Mother Chen was in no condition to go alone. After giving instructions to her daughters, Auntie Li went.

As the village roused behind them, the two women forded the river. The water was frigid with snow melting higher in the hills. Mother Chen waded through without a flinch and walked on. She might have walked forever if Auntie Li hadn't called a rest for food at midday. Then, fingers sticky with rice, they walked again.

Lights bloomed ahead of them as the sky darkened. Auntie Li begged in the village for a warm place to sleep, but it was Mother Chen's declaration that she would see the emperor about her sons that bought them a hot dinner and a rapt audience. Those who spoke called the journey futile or suicidal. Auntie Li did not argue. Mother Chen said nothing.

When they left in the morning, two of the village women came with them. They too had dead sons to ask about.

Mother Chen paid them no more attention than she had paid Auntie Li the day before. Her goal was the emperor. She stopped only when Auntie Li reminded her to eat.

They reached a village shortly before dusk that day, and the two other mothers ran ahead to obtain food and shelter. Again, their purpose won them a warm welcome. When they left in the morning, they were seven. The next day, they were nine.

As they walked down out of the hills into spring, their numbers continued to grow. Auntie Li worried that they would become too many to feed, but they traveled now through more prosperous lands. And, always, there were mothers with dead sons. Those who still had something to keep them at home insisted on providing food or clean linens. Those who did not took up the journey.

By the time they reached the plain where the capital stood, it was full spring and they were the size of a small army. Mother Chen hadn't noticed. The other mothers followed behind her, and her eyes were always for what lay ahead.

Auntie Li had noticed, and the size of the group made her nervous. It might have struck the emperor's fancy to permit one woman to question him. Mercy may prevail where there is no threat. But with this many...well, who would believe they came only to question? Still, Mother Chen continued, so Auntie Li followed.

The towns around the city were less hospitable. While a few still thrilled to the call of their mission, more echoed Auntie Li's thoughts, shooting furtive looks toward the capital. Bellies grew leaner. More of their group began to look like Mother Chen, who had lost all trace of the plump and happy woman she had once been. But at every town, more women joined.

Finally, with Auntie Li so tired and hungry she thought they must stop, they reached the gates of the capital. They were closed, although the sun hung high above. Mother Chen walked until the door barred her way.

As Auntie Li approached the gate, she looked fearfully at the tall earthen walls to either side. Army though they were, the women were dwarfed by this small piece of the emperor's defenses. They all fit between the doors and the end of the walls where the road opened out. It would be a simple thing to trap them there for slaughter.

Instead, a harsh voice commanded from above. "Halt! State your business."

Mother Chen turned from the door toward the speaker. Auntie Li sought him too, and found him at the top of the wall. He was easy to find among the other soldiers, being the only one armed with a bow. The rest of the young men forming a wall of humanity atop the earthen wall carried spears, their heads pointed somewhat awkwardly at the women below.

Auntie Li groped for words to explain their presence and placate the soldiers, but Mother Chen called out first. "My sons! Oh my sons, what grace you show. What bearing and courage."

Auntie Li glanced at her friend. Tears wet Mother Chen's cheeks. She held her arms wide, as though she would embrace the entire line of soldiers. "So must my own sons have looked in the emperor's service. How proud. How noble!" Then she put her face in her hands and sobbed quietly.

Answering sobs came instantly from the women around her and, moments later, from the top of the wall. Auntie Li turned again to see wet faces and dropped spears. The line above her hadn't broken, but it was no longer even.

The soldier with the bow stood resolute, but his voice betrayed his uncertainty. "But what do you want?"

Auntie Li was the only woman not crying. She didn't understand why, but she knew it was her time to speak. She raised her voice above the sobbing crowd. "We wish only to ask the emperor to explain the war to us, to tell us why so many courageous and noble sons have had to die. Please, just take us to the emperor. We will ask our question and leave, go back to our lives and leave you to yours."

The soldier looked at her a long moment, and Auntie Li knew he understood no more than she did of what went on around them. Finally, he nodded. "Open the gates."

Weeping soldiers fell over themselves getting down from the walls and helping the women into the capital. The gate was barred again behind them, as all the soldiers insisted on accompanying the mothers. Their commander, for that was who he had to be, escorted Mother Chen and Auntie Li, a fixed expression of puzzlement on his face.

Still, when they were challenged at the gate to the palace, a more elaborate and less imposing structure than the city gate, he spoke resolutely. "They have sons in the army and want to see the emperor about the war. They are merely village women. What harm can it do to let them in?"

"None, I suppose." The guard shrugged and stood aside. "Unless the emperor takes offense at their bad taste in weeping in his court."

Auntie Li shivered. But she need not have worried. Whether the other women were overawed by the opulence of the palace, with its high, painted ceilings and carved columns, or whether the mood that had swept them was waning, they slowly ceased their cries. The soldiers had stopped once the gates were opened. Tears continued to trail down Mother Chen's cheeks, but she was silent.

Three times more the commander defended his decision to grant the gathering an audience. Each time, the story he presented diverged further from what Auntie Li had told him. At the door to the emperor's audience chamber, they had become heroines bringing grave intelligence. Auntie Li expected Mother Chen to argue, but she merely stopped when her way was barred and walked on once it was opened.

Then they were inside. Auntie Li couldn't find the emperor amidst all the finery and officiousness. After moving to where the commander pointed her, she prostrated herself on the floor. She tugged on the hem of Mother Chen's robes, but her friend remained standing. The women behind her stood as well, ignoring the pleas of the young soldiers on the floor beside them.

Murmurs, then gasps and shouts of outrage from the court rose over the soldiers' voices. Auntie Li covered her head with one hand and tugged harder with the other. Mother Chen didn't move.

Then silence. And a single voice. "Wait."

Curiosity overcoming her instinct for self-preservation, Auntie Li looked up. Following the gaze of the room, she found him. The emperor sat on a throne more elaborate than anything else in the palace, slouched inside layered robes stiff with embroidery, but Auntie Li noticed only one thing.

He was so young.

One of the joys of Auntie Li's life was the small amount of court gossip that filtered through the countryside, so she knew the emperor had been eleven when he'd ascended the throne three years before, but knowing the emperor was young and seeing a near-child on the throne were two different things.

She was still staring openmouthed when he spoke. "Why do you not bow to your emperor?"

Auntie Li found his open curiosity more terrible than anger would have been. Mother Chen ignored the question to finally ask her own. Her tears had stopped, and her voice was strong. "Why did you take my sons?"

The emperor sat up among his robes. "Your sons?"

Mother Chen stood straight too. "You took my sons for your army and sent back their corpses when you were done with them. I've come to ask why."

A man in robes almost as stiff as the emperor's arose behind the emperor's right shoulder. "Woman, how dare--" He stopped when the emperor turned to look at him. He sat back down.

The emperor faced Mother Chen again. "How many sons did you have?"

Mother Chen lifted her chin. "Three."

"And these others?"

Mother Chen looked confused. For all Auntie Li knew, Mother Chen thought she was alone with the emperor. Auntie Li swallowed her rapidly beating heart and answered for her friend. "I don't know. Many."

"All dead, I assume." The emperor's face bore lines too deep for his years. He looked at Mother Chen and sighed. "Your sons went to the army for the best of reasons. One of my ministers tells me it was to protect the trade we need to feed our people. Another says we would be overrun otherwise. Several say we must not appear weak before our neighbors."

He shrank back into his robes again. "Myself, I can only tell you that they died because I ordered that they go to war."

Auntie Li looked on in horror. This was the emperor? This tired boy who spoke passionlessly of war and death?

Mother Chen pressed the emperor, ignorant of any danger. "Did you not talk to your mother before sending other women's sons to war?"

Auntie Li tugged furiously on Mother Chen's robe. Did the woman not remember the scandal? The emperor's mother had lost her life to the executioner's sword just days before the old emperor died. Her son had ascended the throne in deep mourning.

Angry murmurs again rose from the court, but the emperor stilled them by lifting one hand. Then he raised his chin, though it wobbled as he spoke. "My mother is as dead as your sons."

"Dead?" Mother Chen's tears started again. "Oh, my poor child."

Auntie Li didn't know what she expected, except perhaps to die for Mother Chen's impertinence. Instead, Mother Chen's tears flowed again on the faces around her. The women who had followed them to the capital, the soldiers still prostrated on the ground, much of the court--all weeping. Auntie Li looked away quickly when she saw the emperor crying.

Here and there, she saw a face as dry as hers. The commander from the gate looked as perplexed as he had before. A few nobles stared at the emperor, fascinated, or averted their faces in embarrassment. Several of the ministers gaped at the crowd, startled and angry. Most just cried.

Then Mother Chen stretched her arms out, as at the gate, and moved toward the throne. "My poor, poor child."

Auntie Li expected the emperor to call a guard. Instead he stood. With a sob, he moved into the taller woman's embrace. She held the boy tightly, rocking him a little. "My poor boy. My poor, poor boy."

The emperor clenched his arms around Mother Chen and wept. His sobs echoed across the ceiling until he burrowed his face into her flattened breast. Auntie Li wondered how he could breathe, but he never struggled. Slowly, his heaving chest stilled. Then the emperor's grip relaxed, and his hands dropped to his side. Mother Chen continued to rock him long after he was past comforting, the weeping and her droning voice the only sounds in the room.

Auntie Li swallowed and forced herself not to scream. Still crouched on the floor, she backed slowly away from the throne. No one seemed to notice until she passed the commander, who nodded at her and followed. Only after they were clear of the room and far down the hall did she find the courage to speak. "What will happen now?"

The commander shrugged. "There will be another emperor. If I am lucky, he will reward the officer responsible for his ascension. I suspect I will be lucky."

"Lucky?" She didn't understand.

The commander stopped and looked at her. "I've been to the battlefields, but never before have I seen so much death in one place. We are lucky it didn't take us too."

Auntie Li was confused, but she had to protest. "They weren't dead. Only the emperor...." The emperor was dead, suffocated in Mother Chen's embrace. She swallowed.

"He was already dead. First his mother, then the war--sending the empire's sons to die. And your friends..." He cleared his throat. "They weren't mourning their sons. They were mourning themselves."

Auntie Li wanted to argue, but she remembered the look on Mother Chen's face the morning she had turned toward the river. Finally, she understood what she had hoped to save her friend from, now that she had failed. Now she felt tears on her cheeks.

The soldier's voice grew gentle. "Go. Mourn your friend--and your son--properly, and be grateful for whatever you have that has kept you alive. Go home."

Auntie Li went.
Continue reading...

February 12, 2009

Celebrating Darwin, Celebrating Science

When I write, I like to write the small stories. I don’t write about epic heroes. I don’t write about an individual changing the world single-handedly. That stuff just doesn’t interest me much, and besides, I’m not sure I believe that the people who’ve drastically changed the world for the better ever set out on purpose to do so.

Charles Darwin didn’t. He was, in fact, pretty uncomfortable with the idea of changing the world.

Darwin was actually a lot like the people I do like to write about. He had his pet obsessions that he pursued at length, but his real work started when the world intruded on those obsessions in a way he couldn’t ignore. And it was work—no single moment of brilliant insight that solved everything, but years of doggedness.

Okay, Quiche Moraine is blogswarming for Darwin Day today, so if you want to read the rest of this, it's here. Plenty more here as well.

A Quick Note

...to my fellow atheists.

You know how annoying it is when someone says, "Oh, you're an atheist. You must believe X. You must believe the same things Stalin did"? You know how annoying that is? How unfounded?


Can we not do that to Catholics with respect to Benny the Rat?


February 10, 2009

Cool Local Art/Science Event

Okay, I've mentioned this event before, talking about the radio show (podcast available). I'm mentioning it again because, well, because it's cool but also because I've completely failed to mention that I'll be there.

I know there are a few of you out there reading locally whom I haven't met. If you're interested in meeting up at the party (sorry, Monica, I know it's a school night), drop me a line by email or in the comments and we'll make sure it happens.

Darwin Day Party
Thursday, February 12, 2009, 7 to 9 p.m.
Bell Museum Auditorium
$10/free to museum members and University students

The speakers will present in the auditorium from 7 to 8 p.m. Birthday cake and refreshments are served after the presentations.

Celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birthday! Part of a world wide celebration, the Twin Cities' version is at The Bell Museum of Natural History this Thursday night. Join in the fun with cake, drinks and presentations by U of M scientists and educators. They will present funny, outrageous and controversial rapid-fire, media-rich presentations about Darwin and evolution. From the big bang to the human genome, hear the newest research and controversy on evolution and Darwin. The presenters are:

Keith Olive
Mark Decker
Sehoya Cotner
Greg Laden
Mark Borrello

More information about the Bell Museum.
Connect to these events on Facebook.

Also Opening on February 12th: Frans Lanting Photographs: The University of Minnesota Bell Museum of Natural History is proud to host the North American premiere of this internationally acclaimed exhibit. LIFE: A Journey Through Time, interprets the evolution of life on Earth through photographer Frans Lanting. Lanting's lyrical photos trace Earth's history from the beginnings of primordial life to the ascent of mammals through otherworldly landscapes and breathtakingly intimate portraits of animals and plants engaged in million-year-old rituals. Many of the exhibit's 62 photographs are matched with real animal, fossil, and plant specimens from the Bell Museum's collection. Born in the Netherlands, Lanting serves on the National Council of the World Wildlife Fund and is a columnist for Outdoor Photographer and has received the BBC Wildlife Magazine's Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award and the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography.

Also Opening on February 12th: Lynn Fellman's DNA Portraits: The expanding field of genographics uses genetic markers to trace the patterns of human migration from our common origin in Africa. Recent advances in genetic research has spurred Minneapolis artist Lynn Fellman's imagination - she's taken the science to an art form by combining maps, DNA sequence data, and colorful graphics to create stylized portraits as a way to visualize one's deep ancestry. This exhibit features a sampling of her portraits, as well as a series of panels and banners that explain the science behind her art.

February 09, 2009

How Not to Manage Your Image

Almost six years ago, the kings of all gamer geeks, Penny Arcade, posted this comic.

It poked fun at the idea that American McGee had, in two games (Alice and the never-completed Oz), gone from highly innovative game design to shtick. Here was a man who would turn all of the icons of innocent childhood into the stuff of nightmare if only given a chance. And how better to symbolize innocent childhood than to use Strawberry Shortcake?

American Greetings, which owns Strawberry Shortcake and all her friends (so much for innocent childhoods), didn't get it. This is where the comic used to be, and this is what went up on the Penny Arcade news page:

If you have any questions about why, feel free to raise them with Rinda E. Vas, Corporate Counsel for the American Greetings Corporation.

We're currently trying to figure out exactly how the concepts of Parody and Satire work to protect the sorts of things we do, to better arm ourselves against this kind of crap. Virtually everyone believes that what we did is protected, indeed, I believe that myself - but I'm not going to bet the farm on it until I have a bit more than Internet hearsay to back myself up with.

Pity, but it looks like a win for American Greetings.

Except that the image is freely and easily available in multiple places online. Some fan or another had saved a copy, because, really who wouldn't? So the image moves around the web. Get an order to take it down somewhere; put it up somewhere else. It's always available. (Feel free to save a copy--click for the larger version--since American Greetings may not read to the end of this post.)

In the meantime, American Greetings pissed off the fans of Penny Arcade. That would be the same Penny Arcade that runs PAX (Penny Arcade Expo), a convention of gamers that drew almost 60,000 attendees last year. The Penny Arcade that can get 38,000 readers to fill out a demographic survey. Also the Penny Arcade that organizes Child's Play, a charity that pulled in $1.4 million in 2008.

These people are devoted, willing to mobilize, Wikipedia savvy and have money to spend. And they don't like American Greetings. In case I still need to say it, I don't like American Greetings, and I'm happy to tell anyone why. I don't give them my money either. It takes a little longer to find a card sometimes, but it's worth it.

This is, of course, only the most entertaining example I know of in which a company shot themselves in the foot by trying to control who can talk about them and how. There are plenty more, particularly in this day and age. The electronic landscape is such that even when someone complies with a cease-and-desist order immediately, the information is still out there. It's cached on someone's computer, or it's been syndicated. It doesn't go away.

What does go away is restraint. The internet isn't known for being a great repository of the stuff, but what there is disappears very quickly when someone finds out that one of their favorite bloggers or artists has been threatened with lawyers. People, in fact, get downright defiant.

The latest example is at Bad Science. Ben Goldacre had posted the audio of an LBC Radio presenter making an ass of herself about MMR vaccinations. LBC sent a cease-and-desist letter or the equivalent, and now the audio is everywhere but Bad Science. Oh, and there's a nice little write-up on Wikipedia too. It's all exactly as one would expect.

Do you think they'll ever learn?

February 08, 2009

Button Eyes

Neil Gaiman has this trick. It isn't just his trick; plenty of people do it. But Neil makes particularly good use of it.

What does he do? He reassures you.

Only Neil reassures you about things that weren't worrying you. He takes great pains, in fact, to reassure you, going on about how little there is to worry about and how silly you would have to be to worry. He takes more time to dismiss your nonexistent worry than you've ever spent considering whether there might be anything to worry about.

But now you're considering. Now, perhaps, you're just a tiny bit worried. Perhaps about something as innocuous as buttons.

We saw Coraline yesterday, opting not to do the 3D experience. I read the book back in 2002 when it came out, and I highly recommend doing the same--after you've seen the movie. The movie is good, really, but the book is better.

Coraline (for those who don't read every word Neil writes the instant they're available anywhere) is a charming little tale of a young girl who crawls through a tiny door in her boarding house wall to find a world where everything is better. Her parents (other mother and other father) are better. Her friends are better. The other lodgers are better. And the food...the food is much, much better.

Of course, everyone in this other world wants her to stay, and of course, there are prices to be paid: one to stay and one to leave.

Coraline is the book that parents complain about to Neil. It's not a kids' book, they say. It's too creepy. Children can't handle that much creepy. They can't handle being scared.

Kids, for the record, love Coraline.

There certainly weren't any creeped out kids in the theater yesterday, despite the youth of most of the moviegoers, but there weren't as many creeped out adults as I expected either. I wasn't as creeped out as I expected to be. I wasn't as creeped out as I wanted to be.

I blame the animation. While it is great animation, I wish the film had been live action. So much of the creepiness of Coraline's story is in subtle wrongnesses, in the surreal rather than the unreal. That gets much harder to convey when Coraline's normal world is less than real.

That's the only thing really wrong with the movie, though. There are some changes from the book, but it's remarkably true to the heart of the story. The voice acting is quite good. French and Saunders are as much of a hoot as you'd expect. John Hodgman is wonderful and unrecognizable as Coraline's father and other father. The art and the animation are wonderful.

So go see the movie. If you have kids, take them along. The younglings will be just fine.

Then get them to read the book to you and explain how, really, there's nothing in there for any parent to worry about. Nothing at all.

February 07, 2009

Accepting Your Rights

Bora, ever the source of useful links on deconstructing the mainstream media, pointed me to Jay Rosen and Glenn Greenwald on Bill Moyers's Journal. There is lots of good stuff there about the inherent conservatism (not necessarily politically, but some of that too) of the Washington press corps, but it was something else that caught my eye.

GLENN GREENWALD: I think the idea of street demonstrations is probably the most stigmatized idea in our political process. There were huge marches, for instance, prior to the Iraq war, against the war. There were hundreds of thousands of people, millions of people throughout Europe marching in the streets against the war.

And yet, the media virtually excluded those demonstrations from the narrative, because they're threatening, and because they're considered to be the act of unserious radicals and people who are on the fringe, and I think that in some sense, that's reflective of the fact that that level of agitation is probably the most threatening to the people who have a vested in having the system continue unchanged.

I was reminded, as I am periodically, that our political voices are not granted to us by our political system. Our rights are not something handed to us by someone else. That may be the narrative, but it's not the truth. The truth is much more threatening.

We won our voices by revolution. We've carved out every right that is recognized by demonstrating that we were willing to disrupt and even to destroy if we didn't get them. The rare cases have been when we've had to destroy on any large scale, but we've always had to threaten convincingly.

There's more in the transcript (and video) about some small ways to demonstrate your willingness to disrupt. We had to do it to get the election we wanted. Let's not stop now.

Update: Bora saves me much time writing a follow-up post to go into detail on what I mean on this one. He's very good that way.

February 06, 2009

Atheists Talk--Don Luce and Greg Laden

2009 is the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and 150th year of this book "On the Origin of Species". We're celebrating by talking with Dr. Greg Laden, biological anthropologist, U of M. If you haven't met Dr. Laden, you can get to know him through his nationally known blog. There you'll find "Congo Memoirs", his hilarious, hair raising, in-the-wild adventures while doing REAL science.

Similar to 19th century explorers Darwin and Wallace, Dr. Laden writes about tangling with the wild beasts (pythons), disease (malaria), pirates (real pirates) while deciphering how the world works--we know it as Evolution. One hundred fifty years later some of the issues are the same. Our 21st century scientist, Dr. Laden, will give us new insights into how radical the theory was, what's new in our understanding of it and what to watch for in the future.

Also, on the first segment of the show is Don Luce, curator of exhibits at the Bell Museum of Natural History. Don will talk about the Darwin Day party on February 12th at the Museum, the multimedia presentations by U of M scientists and the exhibit of Frans Lanting's photography.

"Atheists Talk" airs live on AM 950 KTNF in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, Sunday, February 8th, 9 to 10 a.m. CST. To stream live, go to http://www.am950ktnf.com/listen.

We welcome questions during the program at (952) 946-6205 or radio@MinnesotaAtheists.org.

PODCASTS of past shows are available at http://MinnesotaAtheists.org or through iTunes.

Produced by Minnesota Atheists. Directed by Mike Haubrich. Hosted by Stephanie Zvan. Interview by Lynn Fellman.

February 05, 2009

Or, Perhaps, News Today

All right, want to see what I've been working on? You can finally check it out. We'll be tweaking it to add functionality and prettiness over the next couple of weeks, but you can get an idea while I go to bed finally.

It all started with a conversation over a couple of Leinie's stouts (no, really, yum) and some lovely Ethiopian food. I think my exact words were, "I'm really enjoying blogging, and I think I'm writing some good stuff. I just wish there were a way that it could, I don't know, do something."

Hopefully, this will do something.

Presenting Quiche Moraine.


Oh, my poor, wee bloggie. For some reason, I decided that the busy season at work was the perfect time to launch a new project. Double crunch. Whee!

Still, news tomorrow. Until then, here's a little retro silliness for you, kilts included. Apparently, our local hodgepodge radio station played this today and cause a local stir on Facebook. What, don't you people have this on your iPods?


February 03, 2009

Blogroll Amnesty Day

Because, really, who can resist an internet-only holiday? The idea is simple:

Celebrating Blogroll Amnesty Day is easy. You don't have to put up a tree or a poll or buy candy or flowers, wrap presents or risk your life playing with dangerous fireworks. All you have to do is link to some smaller blogs that you like or celebrate the idea of linking or blogrolling in any way you see fit.

Fireworks would be cool, but whatever. In their place, here are five blogs that are worth checking out.

If you read the comments around here, you've seen Betül before. You should also be reading her blog, Counter Minds. My only complaint about the blog is that she really hasn't talked about her research, but I guess I can understand that the last thing you'd want to do after working on your dissertation is blog on the topic. Instead, she gives us a hard look at censorship in her home country of Turkey, a good dose of rationality, and plenty of whimsy.

Another blog buddy of mine who I finally got to meet a couple of weeks ago is Lou, FCD, who blogs at Crowded Head, Cozy Bed. He has another blog that doesn't need any amnesty from me, but I'm enjoying this one too. Politics, snark, writing, sex, science...what's not to like?

Unfortunately, I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting Juniper Shoemaker of My Fair Scientist. If I get the opportunity, you better believe I'm going to take it, though. Even if Juniper is half as cool and thoughtful and brave as her writing (and I suspect it's way more than half), she's a hell of a person.

Sadly, I'm unlikely to meet Felicia Gilljam of Life Before Death anytime soon, since she lives in Sweden. For now, I'll just have keeping enjoying her posts on science and atheism--and bees, lots of bees. It's a hardship, I know.

The last blog on today's list is the newest, but I've known its writer the longest. I first met Ben Rouner when he was an angsty teenage musician. He's ditched his teens long ago and the angst more recently, but he's still making music and writing about it at Satellite Noise.

I hope y'all check out these blogs and enjoy them as much as I do. Happy Blogroll Amnesty Day!

February 02, 2009

Taking Off the Act

Thursday morning, my iPod was speaking to me. In a half hour walk to work, three songs all talking about the same subject--acting.

Is there anybody in there in this self-inflicted tomb?
If you peel away the layers, is there someone in this room?

Of course, they were all talking about it because I was already thinking about it. From an email I sent earlier in the week:

I've never met an actor who wasn't in character backstage as well as on. They're just different characters. That's what makes acting as a profession so simultaneously appealing and appalling.

Successful acting requires that you be someone else for a while. It isn't enough to speak the lines and to make the gestures called for in the script. We've all seen the sort of dreadful productions that result. You don't have to dive into the excesses of some of the method actors, but you must at least put on the mannerisms--physical and vocal--and the body language of the part.

There's no way to do this without being affected by it. It calls for an understanding of a fictional character that few people take the time to find. The mannerisms and body language change your emotional state every time they're rehearsed or performed. Try practicing smiling in front of a mirror until you can put a sincere-looking grin on your face on demand. Then do it again where you can't see your reflection smiling back at you. You'll still feel happier for doing it.

Of course, most acting isn't about being happy.

As an actor, if you're any good, you end up living little pieces of the lives of all of your characters. You rehearse them in a way you don't practice being yourself. You explore them and spend time with them in a way that the world tells you is a selfish thing to do on your own. If you act, you have to enjoy being someone else. You don't have to enjoy being yourself.

I'm a good actor.

No, my love, we can't be friends
In fact I liked you much better
When you'd just pretend.

The days of declamation and broad emoting are gone from most stages, and the places where they still find homes are mostly in comedy. Even so, characters in modern theater and film are just a little bigger, a little simpler than any real person. Simple is seductive. People like simple.

If you act, it's all too easy to find the right simple character for any situation. Few and far between are the people who have the time and inclination to get to know you in all your complex, contradictory glory. It's much easier to figure out what your audience wants and to give them only that. More rewarding too. Fewer fights. More praise.

There are a few problems with this, of course. One is that everyone wants something different of you. An audience of one is very manageable. More than that, and which audience do you serve? Whom do you please, and whom do you disappoint?

Beyond that, few and far between doesn't mean nonexistent. While you're performing for the people who want you to be predictable and easily categorized, what happens to the others? They aren't the sort to appreciate a shallow facade, you know. Can you act a more complex character for them? Can you drop the act entirely, and what's there when you do?

I'll dance for you, pose for you
Take off all my clothes for you
Speak your words, sing your song
I'm up for auction, going, gone!

When you've gotten used to generating your behavior from the outside, it's very difficult to relearn how to let it come from inside again. All of the voices in your head are yours, but none of them is you. Almost everything you do has become associated with a character, a person who isn't you. What's left for you to build you from?

I don't know whether it can be done while you're still acting. I can't imagine giving up that immediate approving feedback of individual performance while still indulging in the mass approval that is theater, but maybe someone else could do it. My process required misanthropy, solitude and a certain ruthlessness, for which, ironically, acting had prepared me beautifully.

The first step was deciding who was worthy of being my audience and ignoring (hard to do at first) or avoiding (much easier) everyone else. Whom did it please me to please? That doesn't sound like much progress, but it was, because what it really meant was who pleased me?

It's a question that took years to answer, and the answer changed drastically over time. This is where the ruthlessness came in. I've abandoned or let lapse more friendships than I really care to think about. There are only two things that reconcile me to that. One is that it was necessary. I couldn't find another way to do what I needed to do. The other is that it was successful. These days, I mostly add friends.

I don't avoid people much anymore either. Ironically, I'm still acting around the mass of humanity. They're still never going to appreciate complexity and contradiction, and I'm still giving them what they want. Only now I'm doing it because it's easier for them. And I certainly don't do it all the time.

Now I'm willing to stop to think about what it is that I want, how I think, how I feel. Now I'm willing to risk disagreement and disapproval, even (or especially) from the people I give a damn about. I'm willing to be that geek who will stop in the middle of a sentence to try to reconcile the three tangential thoughts that just occurred to me. I'm willing to be awkward and persuasive and flirtatious and serious and sympathetic and argumentative, because all of those are who I am.

No act. Just me. And that feels pretty good.

If you peel away the armor is something underneath
If you look below for hidden treasure underneath another layer
Are you hiding underneath the skin

February 01, 2009

Elite Legos

The January edition of the Carnival of Elitist Bastards is up at Ecstathy. It was up yesterday, but I was too busy reading all the posts and squeeing over the Lego pirates to tell anyone. Really. Go squee for yourself.

Everyone Should Interview Bora

I managed another first this morning. I've been hosting Atheists Talk for a couple of months now, but I just did my first interview this morning. I've been a little nervous about doing one, because I tend to think before I talk and dead air time is, well, dead.

As it turns out, I don't think it could have gone any better. Okay, I admit that I cheated. I interviewed Bora--about ScienceOnline'09. I had a charming guest, whom I've met before, talking about a subject we both know and care about. The only real challenge was making it an interview instead of continuing on with conversations we'd already started. I think we did a pretty good job with that, though.

But don't take my word for it. You can judge for yourself with the podcast.

And kudos to Mike, who managed both "Zivkovic" and "Zvan" in one introduction before wisely moving on to using "Z" in place of both of our last names.