January 28, 2011

Lady Gamers, Endlessly Editable

If you’ve ever gamed ever, at all, you’ve borne witness to the Eternal Argument. Do women fail to game because their ladybrains make them disinclined to, or is the community so unreceptive that women run screaming in the opposite direction? I come down firmly on the latter side. Let me superficially scratch the surface of this complex issue, while maximizing my SAT word usage to appear really qualified to discuss this matter.

That is Hermitage, who is more than qualified to discuss the care and feeding of gamer dudebros (because that's why women game, right?). Observant, detailed, and snarky, this post really ought to be all one needs on the question. Just in case it's not, however, I present the following.

January 27, 2011

Writers Don't Spring from Zeus's Forehead Either

I've never done a proper fisking on this blog before, but someone seems to have been wearing his curmudgeon pants while reading yesterday's blog post. I use "curmudgeon" advisedly, in the sense that Jay Rosen does, given the nature of some of the sneers involved. Normally, I'd ignore something like this, but it's a misunderstanding that has been repeated elsewhere, although this is the only case I've seen that's reacting to my remarks in context and still missing the point.

Specifically, John Pavlus objects to my statement that "For her skills, sure, I would love to be Rebecca Skloot. It would not keep me from staying hidden. If I want to be recognized, I have to aspire to be Carl or Ed." Rather than characterize the response as anything more than curmudgeonly, I'll let it speak for itself in its entirety.

This is unfashionable to say, but the above idea strikes me as complete and utter horseshit.

Yes, the only reason I would object to Pavlus's statement is fashion. It has nothing to do with taking the idea out of its context, as I lay out below. Or perhaps it does.

Skloot is a world-famous bestselling author who wrote one of THE most read, praised, influential pieces of science journalism of the last decade (at least). (Plus she’s been on Colbert!) Ed Yong (for all his talent, and it is a lot) is internet-famous at best.

This, oddly, is exactly my point. In fact, in the post he's calling "horseshit," I said, "Rebecca frequently didn't make those lists, despite being widely lauded as having published the single best piece of science writing of 2010 and having reached an audience that most writers could only dream of. She never came first." This is a common problem when people make lists.

No, make that internet-famous among science bloggers. That’s like saying you’re king of the nerd table in a high school cafeteria.

Rebecca Skloot is also a science blogger. The blog is currently much more about the book, but I expect that will change when the craziness of her promotion and success steps down a little. She's not about to stop writing. She is part of the very community that frequently forgot to hold her up as an example, and all her success didn't change that.

I'm not sure what's supposed to be wrong with science blogging, but the use of a cultural slur in his simile suggests Pavlus finds something very wrong with it indeed. Thus, curmudgeon.

Write the next “Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” and this precious “recognition” will soon follow, you can bet on it.

Here is the crux of the problem with this post.

Pavlus is a writer, among other things. I have trouble imagining that he doesn't understand how much work and practice it takes to develop the skills that are on display in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. And there's a reason writers groups and writing partners are widely recommended: It's much harder to develop those skills by yourself.

Skloot didn't develop her writing skills in a vacuum. She got a degree in writing and developed her skills among the magazines. She received feedback from editors and other aspiring and professional writers. And she blogged, receiving feedback more directly from readers.

In addition to her training and practice, Skloot attributes her success to "persistence, thick skin, pre-query research, more thick skin and more persistence." She also notes that the social aspect of dealing with other writers is "invaluable. It's also good to just get together and whine, because writing is hard. You help each other through it."

In other words, writing skills and writing careers do not develop in social isolation. Nobody just sits down one day and taps out The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, not even Skloot.

Also, there are limited options these days for even very good science writers to develop in a professional setting and receive the encouragement of professionals. Paid publishing jobs diminished over the last few years, which makes feedback from readers and peers more important than ever--particularly if we wish to increase the quantity of quality in our science communications. Thus blogging, and the visibility of that blogging, are highly relevant when we want to discuss who will become the "next Rebecca Skloot."

Saying, "Produce the work of breathtaking craftsmanship, and then we can talk about what you need to develop your craft," is 100% backwards.

Of course, Skloot also marketed her ass off.

Indeed she did, and well. The self-promotion discussion is happening at Kate Clancy's and Dr Becca's blogs, however, rather than mine.

But these two facts strike me as about three or four orders of magnitude more salient to achieving “recognition” than the fact of one’s gender.

They are indeed more relevant--if the topic at hand is popular success. This one was about visibility among peers. Those are different.

Seriously: who gives a rat’s ass whose name appears first in the program notes at some science-blogger love-in? Not Skloot, I’d wager. She has more important things to worry (and write) about.

I didn't suggest Skloot should get involved in the talk over who was cited. There's almost never any upside for any writer to get involved in discussions about their career or published work (see Anne Rice and Amazon reviews). But that doesn't much matter, as the discussion is actually about newer writers.

As for ScienceOnline: None of this happened in the program notes, which were linked from my post, but to which I otherwise didn't refer. There were bloggers, yes, plus entertainers, educators, researchers, technical developers, high school students, etc. And what's wrong with bloggers? Beyond that, what's wrong with a "love-in" (particularly when one is referring to the group of diverse colleagues getting together to share experiences, ideas, and challenges that ScienceOnline actually is)? After all, Skloot herself gave the keynote address in 2009, participated thoroughly in 2010, and hopes to again in 2012.

No, for the reasons I've already laid out, this conference and the community that participates in it are important to developing science writers. Their ability to fully participate in that community, and to be recognized by that community, matters. They give a "rat's ass" about it. So do I.

January 26, 2011

Hidden Women, Hidden Writers

The biggest problem with ScienceOnline (and one of very, very few) is that there are too many interesting sessions happening at the same time. One of the ones I regret missing was "Perils of blogging as a woman under a real name". Luckily for me, Kate Clancy discussed the session and the discussion before and after the session on her blog.

I recommend her full post (and comments) highly for any woman operating in the public sphere, not just science bloggers. For now, I'd like to highlight a couple of the challenges that others have noted we face.
  • There is serious friend bias in who gets promoted in the science blogosphere, and it ends up that men promote other men quite a lot (in order to avoid potential defensiveness, I will say that we did also discuss several notable exceptions). We need to share the empirical evidence about the fact that people like to read people who are a lot like them, as a kind of sensitivity training for men, to help them train their brains to appreciate many different voices.
  • We are all very, very tired of making a point on a blog, on twitter, or in a meeting, being ignored, having a man make the same point, then having that man get all the credit. Very tired.

  • Both the attacks and appreciations are different for women bloggers. We get unwanted attentions and compliments on our appearance, surprise that we are an authority on certain topics or have an interest in male-dominated topics, or are bullied in a way that feels gendered when a man decides we are wrong on the internet.
I pulled these points out because Christie Wilcox focuses on them in her follow-up post, "I've never been very good at hiding". Again, read the whole post.

Why isn't there a girl version of Ed Yong or Carl Zimmer? Why is there no woman in the elite list of the most well known science bloggers? The excuse that there aren't enough high-quality female science writers just doesn't cut it anymore. They're out there, and they have been for years. Incredible women like Sheril Kirshenbaum have been standing up and taking the full brunt of the internet's misogyny with the utmost grace. We have to be honest with ourselves as a community. The problem isn't that the women aren't there. It's that they aren't being taken as seriously.


I'm not so complacent. I shouldn't have to hide the fact that I am a woman just to be seen as a brilliant scientist or a great writer. And I am young and bull-headed and perhaps just naive enough not to hide. You might notice my looks first, but I'll be damned if you don't hear my words, too.

Christie is issuing a challenge to those who would engage with her based on looks to just try to ignore her work. It's a good challenge. It's bold. She's right that she's damned good and very hard to ignore, but...but...


Having our work tucked neatly out of sight behind our bodies is hardly the only way women writers stay hidden. Talking about our bodies is hardly the only way to fail to engage with women. There is always the much simpler option of just...failing to engage.

Christie wants there to be female Ed Yongs and Carl Zimmers. Ed comments that she might also aspire to be the next Rebecca Skloot. While I appreciate that he's bringing high-profile women science writers into the discussion, his comment misses the point.

Look at the mass of discussion that was generated around ScienceOnline2011. A number of people brought up examples of great writers to emulate. Those lists all started, "Carl Zimmer, Ed Yong, (another male writer--Steve Silberman or David Dobbs or...well, you get the point)." Only after that point, if the list continues, do any female names appear. Rebecca frequently didn't make those lists, despite being widely lauded as having published the single best piece of science writing of 2010 and having reached an audience that most writers could only dream of. She never came first.

For her skills, sure, I would love to be Rebecca Skloot. It would not keep me from staying hidden. If I want to be recognized, I have to aspire to be Carl or Ed.

This isn't unique to science writers. It's part of the reality of publishing as a woman. I get it writing about politics. Google sent ripples out from the Digital Book World conference yesterday when it came out that they were surprised romance was the top-selling genre of e-book. Of course it is. Romance is the top-selling genre of book, period, year-in and year-out. It's just invisible, being women's fiction, unless it's written by a man. But then it's literature, not romance.

Now, there is one way for a female science writer to gain immediate attention for a post. They can write for women or about women. They can write the equivalent of romance.

(To clarify, women are a critical audience, and it's important that they be well-served. I love Kate's suggestion about developing an Old Girl's Club. However, if we're going to talk about any kind of equality, we should note that women already read men and take them seriously. Women see men. The reverse can't always be said.)

Look at the comment section of Christie's post. Now look at the comments on any of her other ScienceOnline posts. Look at how many times each has been retweeted or otherwise promoted and by whom. This post about being a woman while blogging blows them all away in its first half day of publication, and it gets disproportionally promoted by men compared to her other posts. Look at the attention Kate's post has received. It has a huge comment section and has been cross-posted to David Dobbs' Wired blog.

Don't get me wrong. Attention is good. Attention is wonderful. We'd just like to get the same kind of recognition when we write literature that we get when we write romance. In short, guys, we're tired of lapsing into invisibility when we do the same things you do. That's why we aspire to your positions, not Rebecca's.

So if you want to help (I know that a great many of you do, and I appreciate that), it's time to figure out how to incorporate women into your "serious" science writing work. Do you always go to the same one or two male science bloggers when you want to cite an explanation of something? Branch out. Keep a list of reference posts if necessary. Do you highlight a few female bloggers when they write about community or equality? Treat their science posts the same way. Do you think Rebecca is an amazing science writer whom we should aspire to emulate (and I know the answer to that one)? Say so. Repeatedly. First.

Engage with us. Argue with us when you think we're wrong. Talk about us when you think we're good. Go overboard in mentioning us occasionally, since nobody else is doing it. Work to mix us in to general conversations about writing. If you want us to be recognized as science writers, engage with our science writing.

Until you do, Christie can tell people to "bring it" as much as she likes. They're still not stopping by.

January 20, 2011

Staring Down the Barrel

I woke up to death threats this morning.

I got up to check on the overnight oatmeal, noticed my phone was blinking, and picked it up to see "CLOBBERING TIME." Twice. Oh, yay. Dennis Markuze has figured out that I'm an atheist and added me to his target list. Death threats are about to become a regular part of my life.

Yes, I know he's a nutjob in another country. It doesn't make it any better. It much simpler to take a philosophical view of paranoid fixations when they're not pointed at you. Yes, I know he's been threatening people for years without any action. It doesn't make it any better. Everybody who's acted on that sort of delusion has had to start somewhere. The first time I got a death threat online, the person who did it claimed it was just a prank played on a friend's unprotected computer. It doesn't make it any better. Trusting someone who's just said you should die is perhaps the apex of stupidity.

It doesn't make it any better that none of the threats I've received have been phrased as "I'm coming to get you." It doesn't make them any less threatening that they're not stated in the kind of language that makes authorities jump up and do something. The person who asks me how I'd like to be raped and killed in an argument about gun nuttery has made up his mind about what I deserve every bit as much as the person who says he's coming to do it himself. He wouldn't get in the way if someone else decided to act. He just hasn't crossed whatever barrier of anger or insanity keeps him sitting ineffectually in front of his computer. Yet. Those are temporary states. Not comforting at all.

It doesn't make it any better that none of these people are really upset with me personally. It doesn't make it any better that someone who wants me dead doesn't know what socialism is. I can take no comfort in the idea that I'm not what someone calls me. None of the labels that have been slapped on groups to justify their killing have been applied fairly, but that hasn't stopped people from justifying killing that way. In particular, finding any comfort in the idea that a label is unfair ignores the fact that all it really takes for me to "deserve" whatever I get in the eyes of my political enemies is to be different than them. Historically. Currently.

I'm probably safe. I'm probably fine. That probably won't change with every new threat I receive.

That still doesn't make it any better.

January 18, 2011

Geeks, Nerds, and Mundanes

This letter was prompted by a high schooler attending our session at ScienceOnline2011. I think, however, that it's worth saying to an awful lot more kids.

Dear Stacy Baker's students:

First of all, thank you for so many of you attending the It's All Geek to Me session. You added a multi-generational perspective that's hard to achieve in a conference setting, and you cracked us all up more than once. You also asked good questions.

Now, please let me apologize for how I handled one of those questions. I should have been ready to answer the nerd-vs.-geek question, but I wasn't, and I mangled it badly. My joke about "I hang out with geeks with social skills" was only a joke, but it's not remotely funny outside a group of people who know what I actually think about the subject. To anybody else who's been called a nerd, it's just hurtful. I'm very sorry about that.

"Nerd" is a stereotype, of course. A nerd is that person who can't make conversation, can't ever think of the right thing to say, can't dress the way everybody else does (clothes being another form of communication), has awkward body language. A nerd is a person defined by their inabilities. A nerd has no social skills. And since humans are pretty much defined as the social animal, a nerd is somehow impaired in his or her humanity.

It's an ugly stereotype. This is what I meant when I said I don't use the word because it's exclusionary.

What I didn't get around to saying was that it is also nonsense. Social interaction is critical to humanity, but it is our capacity for abstract thought that sets us apart much more. Geeks who don't fit in socially among non-geeks tend to do very well in the realm of abstract reasoning. There's absolutely no basis look down on these geeks and plenty of reasons to look up to them.

That's not the only reason it's nonsense, either. It isn't that people classed as nerds have no social skills (despite my stupid joke). Everybody, even the most developmentally delayed person, has some social skills. If you have the ability to make someone laugh on purpose--not everyone all the time, just someone even once--you have advanced social skills. Humor is hard. It requires empathy, understanding others' expectations, coordinating timing, negotiating taboos, and a host of other joke-specific considerations. You can't be purposely funny without social skills.

So why do people say nerds don't have social skills? Well, largely because they're not using that empathy. Also because they're looking at the question from the limited perspective of their own culture.

One of the things we talked about in the session is how valuing information very highly shapes social interaction. If you get enough people together who value information to that degree, eventually those ways of interacting become their own set of agreed-upon social rules. At that point, you've got a culture.

In this case, you've got a geek culture, or a geek subculture, since geeks aren't in the majority. It doesn't look like the mainstream culture, but that doesn't make it any less valid--just different. Being able to successfully navigate the geek subculture isn't any harder or easier in terms of requiring social skills than navigating mainstream culture. It's also just different.

While someone from the geek culture may have a difficult time navigating the mainstream culture, it's not the case that geek culture is easier. Someone from the mainstream culture won't be able to easily navigate the social expectations of geek culture either. There are really only two differences. The first is that people in geek culture feel more pressure, as the minority, to accommodate someone from mainstream culture.

Second, there are different words for people who "invade" each culture from the other unsuccessfully. Those who are strangers in the mainstream culture are called "nerds." Those who are strangers in the geek culture are sometimes called "mundanes." It's not any nicer or less judgmental a word than "nerd." It's just coming from a different source.

So the real answer to "What's the difference between geeks and nerds?" is that a nerd is a geek outside of her or his culture. And that's why I don't use "nerd." It's just one more word that says, "Your kind isn't welcome here."

Now, as for the reason I made the joke I did. To understand, you have to know a certain amount about my past.

I really did grow up with limited social skills. I was very shy, and I grew up in a house where getting things wrong had consequences that no kid should have to deal with. Since developing good social skills requires a lot of trial and error, I was pretty backward in that respect.

A little later, I spent a lot of time as a poor geek in an area where the geeks were mostly well-off. If geek and non-geek are different cultures, so are poor and rich, or even poor and comfortably middle class. This was a disadvantage for me in that I moved between cultures where I never quite fit in. If I was with the geeks, I was behaving "wrong" for their socioeconomic culture. If I hung out with my class, my interests (and thus I) bored them to tears. I didn't meet their cultural expectations for entertainment.

I was always under pressure to conform to a culture that was a major mismatch to my identity. On the other hand, that situation taught me so much more about cultures, acceptance and exclusion, and the variability of what is "right" than being comfortable could ever have done. I learned a huge repertoire of social skills adaptable to most situations. And I became the kind of communication geek who could and would propose a session about navigating the cultural expectations of geeks and non-geeks.

Ironically, that joke came out in that session at ScienceOnline because I was as close to being in a room of my peers as I ever am in a group of more than about ten people. My mistake was in assuming that shared geekhood would provide enough shared background for everyone to understand what I would mean by "geeks with social skills."

I apologize for taking that for granted, and I hope this post helps.

January 16, 2011

Among Thieves Author Interview

There's something rather odd about seeing one of your friends referred to as "one of the most anticipated debut authors of 2011," even when you think he deserves it. There's definitely something funny about seeing his name in quotes as though it were a pen name.

No, Douglas Hulick is his real name, and his very, very gray fantasy Among Thieves is coming out at the beginning of April in both the U.S. and the UK. I've read it. It's good. Not just be-nice-to-your-friend good, but twisty and turny and political and human and...yeah, good.

You can't read it yet (time to break out the #totallyrubbingitin hashtag again), but you can read what promises to be just the first of his interviews and see what more unbiased folks are saying about it to make it so anticipated. Check it out here.

January 15, 2011

Son O Son

As long as I'm posting nice morbid folk music, I should note that Neil Gaiman is not the first to decide that folk music is all about love and death, preferably at the same time. It's highly traditional.

Son O Son

It's up in the kitchen and down in the hall...

January 14, 2011

At Bagram's Joint Theater Hospital

Just before New Year's, NPR ran a short piece on All Things Considered about the advances in the treatment of trauma that have come out of nine years of constant warfare. It was both heartening and heartbreaking.

Old Techniques Discovered Anew

Aggressive use of tourniquets, which have been used on the battlefield for hundreds of years, is helping to stop bleeding within moments of injury.

"The soldier out in the field that encounters an explosion or a gunshot wound, the most important part in his chain of survival from the explosion, until we can get him to Walter Reed [Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.] probably is what his battle buddy does — the guy in the next vehicle or the guy who was 50 meters away," says Benjamin.

Only a decade ago, tourniquets were a last resort, thought to carry serious risks of doing harm. But early during the Iraq War, soldiers began carrying their own tourniquets, and now all U.S. troops carry special tourniquets designed for use with one hand. The change reflects the chilling number of wounds that involve lost limbs.

This wasn't the easiest segment to listen to, but it's stuck with me ever since. I recommend at least reading it, as the entire transcript is available online. However, if you have a few minutes to spare, this is one of the stories where listening does make a difference.

January 13, 2011

A Girl Needs a Knife

Will Shetterly posted this video while I was in the middle of blogging about rape myths. It was remarkably cheering. This song is definitely on my list of favorite Flash Girls tunes (not a short list). It's not the best recording, but it's clear enough, and worth listening to if only to find out who wrote it.

A Girl Needs a Knife

I hold it and stare at the line of my knife, and I think about things that it's done.

January 12, 2011

Required Reading

Wouldn't it be nice if national tragedies inspired everyone to band together to take an unflinching look at the causes and to determine what each of us can contribute to keep them from happening again? Yes, DrugMonkey, I am a dreamer. Still, it is important to recognize that how we react determines where we go from here, and a number of people are finding the public reactions to the Tucson shooting sadly wanting.

PZ Myers has tackled the idea that the call for accountability and responsibility in public discourse is somehow politicizing the shooting.


What we have here is an attempted assassination of a politician by an insane crank at a political event, in a state where the political discourse has been an unrelenting howl of eliminationist rhetoric and characterization of anyone to the left of Genghis Khan as a traitor and enemy of the state…and now, when six (including a nine year old girl) lie dead and another fourteen are wounded, now suddenly we're concerned that it is rude and politicizing a tragedy to point out that the right wing has produced a toxic atmosphere that pollutes our politics with hatred and the rhetoric of violence?

James Ford rejects the simplistic notion that the solution is simply settling down and being nice (via Kevin at Wee Beasties).

This is the way of love, not a simpering, maudlin love, but a dynamic and challenging love. A love that calls us to know we are all in this together. I need to proclaim, to speak. I will speak for individuals. I will speak for families. I will speak for this lovely country. I will speak for our precious planet.

And I will not be shut up.

Mike the Mad Biologist reminds us that there is something even more basic to a functioning civilization than the social lubrication we call civility, and we just don't have it.

We're now seeing all of the civility trolls coming out of the woodwork. If by civility, one means "not engaging in violent eliminationist rhetoric", well, then I'm all for it. But what I'm concerned about is that honest criticism will be silenced. While I'm not as sanguine about political rhetoric as, let's say, Jack Shafer, the fact is a lot of people in political life are habitually...counterfactual. That is, they're liars. Others are ideologically blinkered, while yet others, sadly, are either just kinda dim or else stone-cold ignorant.

At Vanity Fair, Mark Ames discusses where this shooting fits in among other modern political shootings, where it doesn't, and what this has to say about the times in which we live.

This may seem like a semantic quibble, but what occurred in that Safeway supermarket appears to be an entirely new type of American murder: a hybrid of political assassination, of the sort that plagued America in the 1960s and 70s, and a “going postal” rampage massacre, of the kind that first appeared in the mid- to late-1980s, with the rise of Reaganomics inequalities and the deterioration of workplace culture.

And finally, Melissa McEwan demolishes in detail the ridiculous notion of any kind of parity between the left and the right in the acceptance and promotion of violent rhetoric.

There is no leftist equivalent to Glenn Beck, host of a long-running nationally syndicated radio show, former host of a show on CNN and current host of a show on Fox, best-selling author, DC rally organizer, and longtime user of eliminationist rhetoric, including equating universal healthcare to rape, joking about victims of forest fires being America-hating liberals, comparing Al Gore to Hitler, condoning the murder of Michael Moore, accusing Holocaust survivor George Soros of being a Nazi collaborator, joking about poisoning Nancy Pelosi, equating immigration reform with burning US citizens alive, publicly endorsing violent revolution, and winkingly telling his viewers not to get violent, all of which amounts to a speck on the tip of a very big iceberg.

So, what else is out there that people should be reading and thinking about?

January 11, 2011

Readings in Geek Communication

This post continues the setup for a session I'm running at ScienceOnline 2011 with Maria Walters and Desiree Schell called, "It's All Geek to Me." We'll discuss what we can learn about communicating science by looking at differences between a general audience and science's most solid audience--geeks.

Geek is not the default in our society, so when someone describes the differences between geek and non-geek communications, they tell us about geeks. Still, by looking at what geeks do "differently," we can gain insight into both geeks and non-geeks. The following are posts that tell us what sets geeks apart from everyone else.

Toni Bowers at TechRepublic lays out how the communication mismatch is generally addressed and asks a question that reframes the problem:

“The tech worker, the geek, is a problem solver; the businessman, the suit, is a people influencer. The geek likes to fix things, the suit relies more on people skills,” said Zetlin. Technology for suits is a “means to an end”-business success-while for geeks (who see themselves as outsiders and artists) it’s a “living, breathing thing.”

This is one of the reasons you hear so many career professionals advising IT folks to develop good communication skills. The better able you are to interpret what the business folks are asking for and turn it into a useful tool or technology, the better off you’ll be.

So should the other side of that equation be the suggestion that business people hone up on their technical skills? Well, you certainly don’t hear that as much. Wonder why that is?

A post and comment thread at Geek Etiquette specifically looks at differences in behavior:

The best is enemy of the good. Geeks often seek perfection, where non-geeks are more prepared to accept “good enough”. Lots of arguments occur around this.

Relevance mismatch. Geeks think some things (eg. how someone dresses) should be irrelevant, and largely disregard them. Non-geeks tend to place greater emphasis on personal grooming and dress codes. Conversely, non-geeks might think that something like desktop operating system is irrelevant, when it’s highly important to geeks. Either group will disregard what they consider “irrelevant”, not realising it’s relevant to the other party.

Another Geek Etiquette post takes on multitasking and balancing it with non-geek expectations for interaction:

If we’re not running a sideband conversation about the presentation topic, we’re often googling for more information on the presenter’s topic, or downloading and trying out the code in real-time. Those of us who are presenting later on are probably working on our slides at the last minute, and those of us who are taking time off from work to attend probably couldn’t do so unless we kept up with our email. All worthwhile things, one might argue.

On the other hand, the one-day London Perl Workshop last December didn’t provide WiFi, saying (in their FAQ) “it’s rude to type during someone’s talk and when you’re out of talks you should be socialising :)”

And yet one more Geek Etiquette post addresses geek literalism and the differences in producing and interpreting verbiage with only social content:

Most non-geeks have outbound tact filters: they filter what they want to say and add polite noise as it passes through. Geeks have inbound tact filters: they take bare communication with no politeness and just wrap it in assumed politeness as they interpret it.

When non-geeks talk, geeks think the polite sounds they make are redundant.

When geeks talk, non-geeks just think they’re being incredibly rude.

Adam Bluestein at Inc. magazine produces a user manual for geeks that discusses motivating geeks and the particulars of geek psychology:

Systematic thinking. Geeks see nothing magic about technology, only problems to be broken down and solved. "They tend to view the world in black-and-white terms," says Frazer. "They're very good at looking at a problem and reducing it to its component parts."

Wrong? Never. Geeks often have a powerful intellectual vanity. That makes it hard for them to admit mistakes. Hence, the plethora of expressions that blame the victim (see glossary, below).

Competitive nature. Being smarter than their peers is really important for geeks. Developers are constantly honing their skills with the aim of doing something that no one's been able to do.

Rands in Repose provides a similar guide for women dating a geek (a nerdy one in this case):

Nerds are fucking funny. Your nerd spent a lot of his younger life being an outcast because of his strange affinity with the computer. This created a basic bitterness in his psyche that is the foundation for his humor. Now, combine this basic distrust of everything with your nerd’s other natural talents and you’ll realize that he sees humor is another game.

Humor is an intellectual puzzle, “How can this particular set of esoteric trivia be constructed to maximize hilarity as quickly as possible?” Your nerd listens hard to recognize humor potential and when he hears it, he furiously scours his mind to find relevant content from his experience so he can get the funny out as quickly as possible.

Bex Huff discusses one implication of the geek's strong problem-solving drive:

Now... empathy is not easy, and its extraordinarily difficult for engineers.

Most technical people have been brainwashed by years of "education" into believing that there's a "right way" to do everything, and that its our job to fix it. When something is "wrong," we want to dive in and tell everybody how to make it "right" again. Its a trained compulsion. This is why engineers make lousy lovers, but excellent terrorists. In both cases, its a lack of empathy that dooms us to this fantasy world of absolute right and wrong, making it impossible to see things from another perspective.

Sound like anybody you know?

Finally, a favorite of mine and one from a geek culture that isn't a computer culture. This has more to do with interpersonal interactions than online communication, but it's still worth reading for insight into the different ways geeks and non-geeks process social interaction. Cally Soukup summarizes a talk by a speech therapist on how science fiction and fantasy fans communicate differently than "mundanes."

What we say in those large word groupings is also different. We tend to use complete sentences, and complex sentence structure. When we pause, or say "uh", it tends to be towards the beginning of a statement, as we formulate the complete thought. The "idea" or "information" portion of a statement is paramount; emotional reassurance, the little social noises (mm-hmm) are reduced or omitted. We get to the heart of what we want to say -- if someone asks us how to do something we tell them, not leading up to it gently with "have you tried doing it this way?"

This leads us to body language. Our body language is also different from mundanes. We tend to not use eye contact nearly as often; when we do, it often signifies that it's the other person's turn to speak now. This is opposite of everyone else. In mundania, it's *breaking* eye contact that signals turn-taking, not *making* eye contact. She demonstrated this on DDB; breaking eye contact and turning slightly away, and he felt insulted. On the other hand, his sudden staring at her eyes made her feel like a professor had just said "justify yourself NOW". Mutual "rudeness"; mixed signals.

We use our hands when we talk, but don't seem to know what to do with our arms. When thinking how to put something we close our eyes or look to the side and up, while making little "hang on just a second" gestures to show that we're not finished talking. We interrupt each other to finish sentences, and if the interrupter got it right, we know we've communicated and let them speak; if they get it wrong we talk right over them. This is not perceived as rude, or not very rude.

So, what other good resources are there for describing the differences between geeks and non-geeks in communication and expectations?

January 10, 2011

I Am Geek; Hear Me Mutter Pedantically

This post is an introduction to a session I'm running at ScienceOnline 2011 with Maria Walters and Desiree Schell called, "It's All Geek to Me." We'll discuss what we can learn about communicating science by looking at differences between a general audience and science's most solid audience--geeks.

It's been months since I last saw a geek. He was emceeing a burlesque show and occasionally entertaining us with old standards like pounding a spike into his nose. He was a lousy emcee but a pretty good geek.

That's where the term geek came from--performers who got very good at doing things most of us would never even consider. Of course, these days the term has been co-opted by people who do not generally bite the heads off chickens, and geeks of old are mostly known as freaks, lumped in with those with physical features unusual enough to be worth paying to see. Geek has changed.

Still, the origin of the term is useful for understanding the modern geek. In particular, understanding that geeks are set apart by their interests and the lengths they'll go to to pursue those interests is critical to understanding geeks as an audience. And there may be no better place to go for an explanation than Patton Oswalt's recent piece on geek culture.

I was too young to drive or hold a job. I was never going to play sports, and girls were an uncrackable code. So, yeah—I had time to collect every Star Wars action figure, learn the Three Laws of Robotics, memorize Roy Batty’s speech from the end of Blade Runner, and classify each monster’s abilities and weaknesses in TSR Hobbies’ Monster Manual. By 1987, my friends and I were waist-deep in the hot honey of adolescence. Money and cars and, hopefully, girls would follow, but not if we spent our free time learning the names of the bounty hunters’ ships in The Empire Strikes Back. So we each built our own otakuesque thought-palace, which we crammed with facts and nonsense—only now, the thought-palace was nicely appointed, decorated neatly, the information laid out on deep mahogany shelves or framed in gilt. What once set us apart, we hoped, would become a lovable quirk.

Our respective nerdery took on various forms: One friend was the first to get his hands on early bootlegs of Asian action flicks by Tsui Hark and John Woo, and he never looked back. Another started reading William Gibson and peppered his conversations with cryptic (and alluring) references to “cyberspace.” I was ground zero for the “new wave” of mainstream superhero comics—which meant being right there for Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and Neil Gaiman. And like my music-obsessed pals, who passed around the cassette of Guns n’ Roses’ Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide and were thus prepared for the shock wave of Appetite for Destruction, I’d devoured Moore’s run on Swamp Thing and thus eased nicely into his Watchmen. I’d also read the individual issues of Miller’s Daredevil: Born Again run, so when The Dark Knight Returns was reviewed by The New York Times, I could say I saw it coming. And I’d consumed so many single-issue guest-writing stints of Gaiman’s that when he was finally given The Sandman title all to himself, I was first in line and knew the language.

Geeks are specialists, uber-specialists in fields that other people scratch their heads over if they even know they exist. Geeks are informational deep-divers in their own esoteric specialties. Geeks are...well, they're a lot like scientists. Many of them are scientists.

They are also the main self-selecting audience of science communicators. After all, who but a geek gets excited about opening up new sources of information by learning how to read scientific literature? Who else has overcome (or never internalized) the social prohibitions against asking dumb questions in order to participate in their own education? Who else fills the comment sections of various science blogs with their own vaguely related bits of esoteric knowledge to create the fascinating conversations that can happen there?

I phrase it that way because there is a "who else" who are not geeks and who don't self-select for engaging with science communicators. They're still an important audience to reach. To the extent that science communication has a game plan for changing the world, they may be an even more strategic target audience than geeks.

This non-geek audience, however, has different goals for how they spend their time than the geeks do. They are often distracted and distractable. Instead of wanting to incorporate all the knowledge there is, they're looking to have information winnowed down to that which is relevant for them. They're ready for the 50,000-foot view rather than the deep dive.

This geek/non-geek dynamic is, of course, a bit of a simplification. Your average non-geek may have a head full of sports statistics or bread recipes, available on a moment's notice, and your average geek has plenty of topics in which s/he just isn't that interested. "Geek" is as much a method of engagement as anything else, and which method a person brings to a particular piece of science communication depends greatly on the topic at hand.

Then there is the pseudo-geek, the person who takes the broad but shallow dive. Patton Oswalt again:

The problem with the Internet, however, is that it lets anyone become otaku about anything instantly. In the ’80s, you couldn’t get up to speed on an entire genre in a weekend. You had to wait, month to month, for the issues of Watchmen to come out. We couldn’t BitTorrent the latest John Woo film or digitally download an entire decade’s worth of grunge or hip hop. Hell, there were a few weeks during the spring of 1991 when we couldn’t tell whether Nirvana or Tad would be the next band to break big. Imagine the terror!

But then reflect on the advantages. Waiting for the next issue, movie, or album gave you time to reread, rewatch, reabsorb whatever you loved, so you brought your own idiosyncratic love of that thing to your thought-palace.

This is the person who has absorbed the easily available information on a topic but hasn't engaged to the level of grappling with it. In science communication terms, this person knows the Wikipedia articles and the three paragraphs available in a textbook overview of the subject but has no idea what the recent studies say or what the disagreements in the field are. This is the person who shows up in the comments of a blog post discussing a tricky issue to tell you that you suck because you aren't saying what "everyone knows" about the topic.

All three of these engagement methods or types of audiences require different treatment. There are plenty of people out there telling geeks how to reach non-geeks, but ironically, much of that information alienates its intended audience by not treating them as the geeks they are. Bora had a lovely take a while back on what such a book would look like if written by a geek for a geek audience.

There's much less information out there on how to communicate with geeks. In another post tomorrow, I'll collect some of the information that exists. [Update: now available here.] Be forewarned, however, that it largely doesn't come from peer-reviewed research, a fact that will make geek audiences twitch. However, it does give a (default) non-geek perspective on communicating with geeks that should shed some light on the differences between the two.

Then, come Sunday morning at 10:15 EST, my co-moderators (both with plenty of experience translating from geek to non-geek and back) and I will host a discussion on how understanding the differences between these audiences can help us define and reach the target audiences for our own communications. And we'll try to find a productive solution for dealing with those pseudo-geeks.

I believe the session should be live-streamed; I'll add a link as soon as one is available. It can also be followed on the Twitter hashtag #scio11, and we'll try to have at least one person in the room monitoring that feed for anyone who wants to participate remotely.

I hope to see you all there.

January 09, 2011

Assange and Eyes on the Prize

This post continues my examination of the general wrongness that is some of the arguments being made by Assange supporters wishing to dismiss the rape allegations against him. Before commenting here, you should read the rest of these:

Assange and Lover's Revenge
Assange and Sex by Surprise
Assange and Real Rape
Assange and the Victim Conspiracy
Assange and the Presumption of Innocence
How Must She Behave to Have Been Raped?

Part 6: Those feminists are just distracting from the real issues!
I really wanted to be done with this, but there's a new narrative emerging in this situation that I think needs to be dealt with quickly. Feminists, you see, in focusing on the issue of rape, are distracting from the real issue:

It is important that the left continues to defend Assange’s right to a fair trial. It is not up to the media, politicians, or water-cooler conversations to condemn Assange or decide his fate, or that of Wikileaks. As Glenn Greenwald told CNN on Monday 27 December 2010: “People should go to jail when they are charged with a crime, and they are convicted of that crime, in a court of law.”


It is up to us to ensure the process involved in prosecuting any charges brought against Assange in this case be fair and just, and that a sexual misconduct case does not instead become a case to stifle freedom of information or publishing rights.

If you'd like a more virulent version of the same argument, laced with pretty much the full set of rape myths and mischaracterizations of the allegations against Assange, you can find it here.

The basic idea is that by telling the world that rape allegations are to be taken seriously, those of us engaged in the process have been keeping people from talking about Wikileaks, its work, and the very serious threats it's under from various governments. By focusing on this narrow issue (then more broadly construed as identity politics), we're missing the big picture.

While I'm sympathetic to the frustration that the rape allegations have gotten far more press recently than the appalling lengths to which politicians and governments have gone or advocated going in the attempt to shut down Wikileaks, this particular argument isn't going to fly. Why? Because we were there first. It's telling that both of the articles I linked above are set up as arguments against a post that concludes thus:

WikiLeaks is revealing information citizens need to know – it's a good thing. Assange may or may not have committed sex crimes according to Swedish law. Why is it so hard to hold those two ideas at once?

It is feminist bloggers and columnists who have been pointing out that the existence of rape allegations against Assange are separate from how any charges are handled by the international legal community are separate from the worth of Wikileaks. We are the ones who have been calling for an open legal process, with investigation of the charges and a trial if/as appropriate. And we have been doing it in the face of millions of words and thousands of sneers worth of hateful, hurtful irrelevancy.

Assange's lawyers did not need to lie about Swedish law and the charges against their client or repeat rape myths in order to state their confidence that the charges would be found to be baseless. Naomi Wolf did not need to say that prosecuting a rape was a travesty in order to make the case that Assange has been treated differently by the legal establishment. Michael Moore didn't need to smear the accusers and unilaterally declare the charges baseless in order to make the case that Assange should be allowed out on bail. Nobody has needed to declare feminism invalid in order to declare their support for Wikileaks.

Yet all those things were done, and all those things have consequences. In order to support Assange, some people on the left chose to hurt others needlessly. They are the ones who added caustic distractions to this situation. Those of us who have reacted are simply insisting that if others are going to make rape the topic, as they did, they talk about it accurately.

So, while I'm happy to see that more people are starting to tell people to get their priorities in shape and focus, perhaps they should be saying it to someone else.

January 06, 2011

Apologetics and Apoplexy

You see the arguments: Atheists can't have morals because they don't have a god to provide them. Atheists think this world is all there is, so what do they care about being good if it all goes away when they die? God is love, so atheists can't love anyone.

It's a clueless, backward argument. Atheists have morals. They love. Demonstrably. I've always found it a bit sad that these particular theists argue from principles and end up denying the facts rather than the other way around, but...well, you just can't make people think if they don't want to. I might step in now and again to point out that this is what they're doing. I include evidence to the contrary when I lecture a class on religious skepticism, but in arguments, usually I just walk away.

Today, however, it's personal.

Last week, my friend Jodi, who rarely blogs, wrote a post about penises. Well, it was about taking a realistic look at body image anxieties imposed on men, in particular about penises. She ended it with "I guess what I’m trying to say is that we should all just have sex the way we want with the types of people we want and *enjoy* it, because enjoying it makes it awesome."

Then, some idiot theist who likes to keep tabs of what "the atheists [a]re up to these days" decided that this one sentence was a great jumping-off point for another one of those ass-backward arguments about morality. His point? That atheists had no reason to not include pedophilia in that "types of people we want" because we didn't have religion.

I'm not linking to his post. Jodi preserved it for history in her own post. Go over there if you want to read it and laugh over some spectacular bits of cluelessness about who wrote the post and what it was about or engage in some discussion over where exactly the injunction against pedophilia comes in the bible and how well those who preach these morals live up to them. That's not what this post is about.

This post is about demonization. It's about basic empathy and humanity. And it is, sadly, about kids and rape and a suicide note. This may get too intense for some people. If you're one of them, you'll find the rest of what I have to say at the very end of this post, below the fold.

In some ways, it doesn't matter who he was. I mean, it matters intensely, but I didn't know him. After reading his letter this morning, which I found following a random Twitter link that I can't even find anymore, I couldn't remember his name (it's Bill Zeller). What matters is that he was building a life, growing academically and professionally, despite having been repeatedly raped as a child. I say, "was," because what follows is the letter he posted before successfully hanging himself, posted in its entirety as he requested.

I have the urge to declare my sanity and justify my actions, but I assume I'll never be able to convince anyone that this was the right decision. Maybe it's true that anyone who does this is insane by definition, but I can at least explain my reasoning. I considered not writing any of this because of how personal it is, but I like tying up loose ends and don't want people to wonder why I did this. Since I've never spoken to anyone about what happened to me, people would likely draw the wrong conclusions.

My first memories as a child are of being raped, repeatedly. This has affected every aspect of my life. This darkness, which is the only way I can describe it, has followed me like a fog, but at times intensified and overwhelmed me, usually triggered by a distinct situation. In kindergarten I couldn't use the bathroom and would stand petrified whenever I needed to, which started a trend of awkward and unexplained social behavior. The damage that was done to my body still prevents me from using the bathroom normally, but now it's less of a physical impediment than a daily reminder of what was done to me.

This darkness followed me as I grew up. I remember spending hours playing with legos, having my world consist of me and a box of cold, plastic blocks. Just waiting for everything to end. It's the same thing I do now, but instead of legos it's surfing the web or reading or listening to a baseball game. Most of my life has been spent feeling dead inside, waiting for my body to catch up.

At times growing up I would feel inconsolable rage, but I never connected this to what happened until puberty. I was able to keep the darkness at bay for a few hours at a time by doing things that required intense concentration, but it would always come back. Programming appealed to me for this reason. I was never particularly fond of computers or mathematically inclined, but the temporary peace it would provide was like a drug. But the darkness always returned and built up something like a tolerance, because programming has become less and less of a refuge.

The darkness is with me nearly every time I wake up. I feel like a grime is covering me. I feel like I'm trapped in a contimated body that no amount of washing will clean. Whenever I think about what happened I feel manic and itchy and can't concentrate on anything else. It manifests itself in hours of eating or staying up for days at a time or sleeping for sixteen hours straight or week long programming binges or constantly going to the gym. I'm exhausted from feeling like this every hour of every day.

Three to four nights a week I have nightmares about what happened. It makes me avoid sleep and constantly tired, because sleeping with what feels like hours of nightmares is not restful. I wake up sweaty and furious. I'm reminded every morning of what was done to me and the control it has over my life.

I've never been able to stop thinking about what happened to me and this hampered my social interactions. I would be angry and lost in thought and then be interrupted by someone saying "Hi" or making small talk, unable to understand why I seemed cold and distant. I walked around, viewing the outside world from a distant portal behind my eyes, unable to perform normal human niceties. I wondered what it would be like to take to other people without what happened constantly on my mind, and I wondered if other people had similar experiences that they were better able to mask.

Alcohol was also something that let me escape the darkness. It would always find me later, though, and it was always angry that I managed to escape and it made me pay. Many of the irresponsible things I did were the result of the darkness. Obviously I'm responsible for every decision and action, including this one, but there are reasons why things happen the way they do.

Alcohol and other drugs provided a way to ignore the realities of my situation. It was easy to spend the night drinking and forget that I had no future to look forward to. I never liked what alcohol did to me, but it was better than facing my existence honestly. I haven't touched alcohol or any other drug in over seven months (and no drugs or alcohol will be involved when I do this) and this has forced me to evaluate my life in an honest and clear way. There's no future here. The darkness will always be with me.

I used to think if I solved some problem or achieved some goal, maybe he would leave. It was comforting to identify tangible issues as the source of my problems instead of something that I'll never be able to change. I thought that if I got into to a good college, or a good grad school, or lost weight, or went to the gym nearly every day for a year, or created programs that millions of people used, or spent a summer or California or New York or published papers that I was proud of, then maybe I would feel some peace and not be constantly haunted and unhappy. But nothing I did made a dent in how depressed I was on a daily basis and nothing was in any way fulfilling. I'm not sure why I ever thought that would change anything.

I didn't realize how deep a hold he had on me and my life until my first relationship. I stupidly assumed that no matter how the darkness affected me personally, my romantic relationships would somehow be separated and protected. Growing up I viewed my future relationships as a possible escape from this thing that haunts me every day, but I began to realize how entangled it was with every aspect of my life and how it is never going to release me. Instead of being an escape, relationships and romantic contact with other people only intensified everything about him that I couldn't stand. I will never be able to have a relationship in which he is not the focus, affecting every aspect of my romantic interactions.

Relationships always started out fine and I'd be able to ignore him for a few weeks. But as we got closer emotionally the darkness would return and every night it'd be me, her and the darkness in a black and gruesome threesome. He would surround me and penetrate me and the more we did the more intense it became. It made me hate being touched, because as long as we were separated I could view her like an outsider viewing something good and kind and untainted. Once we touched, the darkness would envelope her too and take her over and the evil inside me would surround her. I always felt like I was infecting anyone I was with.

Relationships didn't work. No one I dated was the right match, and I thought that maybe if I found the right person it would overwhelm him. Part of me knew that finding the right person wouldn't help, so I became interested in girls who obviously had no interest in me. For a while I thought I was gay. I convinced myself that it wasn't the darkness at all, but rather my orientation, because this would give me control over why things didn't feel "right". The fact that the darkness affected sexual matters most intensely made this idea make some sense and I convinced myself of this for a number of years, starting in college after my first relationship ended. I told people I was gay (at Trinity, not at Princeton), even though I wasn't attracted to men and kept finding myself interested in girls. Because if being gay wasn't the answer, then what was? People thought I was avoiding my orientation, but I was actually avoiding the truth, which is that while I'm straight, I will never be content with anyone. I know now that the darkness will never leave.

Last spring I met someone who was unlike anyone else I'd ever met. Someone who showed me just how well two people could get along and how much I could care about another human being. Someone I know I could be with and love for the rest of my life, if I weren't so fucked up. Amazingly, she liked me. She liked the shell of the man the darkness had left behind. But it didn't matter because I couldn't be alone with her. It was never just the two of us, it was always the three of us: her, me and the darkness. The closer we got, the more intensely I'd feel the darkness, like some evil mirror of my emotions. All the closeness we had and I loved was complemented by agony that I couldn't stand, from him. I realized that I would never be able to give her, or anyone, all of me or only me. She could never have me without the darkness and evil inside me. I could never have just her, without the darkness being a part of all of our interactions. I will never be able to be at peace or content or in a healthy relationship. I realized the futility of the romantic part of my life. If I had never met her, I would have realized this as soon as I met someone else who I meshed similarly well with. It's likely that things wouldn't have worked out with her and we would have broken up (with our relationship ending, like the majority of relationships do) even if I didn't have this problem, since we only dated for a short time. But I will face exactly the same problems with the darkness with anyone else. Despite my hopes, love and compatability is not enough. Nothing is enough. There's no way I can fix this or even push the darkness down far enough to make a relationship or any type of intimacy feasible.

So I watched as things fell apart between us. I had put an explicit time limit on our relationship, since I knew it couldn't last because of the darkness and didn't want to hold her back, and this caused a variety of problems. She was put in an unnatural situation that she never should have been a part of. It must have been very hard for her, not knowing what was actually going on with me, but this is not something I've ever been able to talk about with anyone. Losing her was very hard for me as well. Not because of her (I got over our relationship relatively quickly), but because of the realization that I would never have another relationship and because it signified the last true, exclusive personal connection I could ever have. This wasn't apparent to other people, because I could never talk about the real reasons for my sadness. I was very sad in the summer and fall, but it was not because of her, it was because I will never escape the darkness with anyone. She was so loving and kind to me and gave me everything I could have asked for under the circumstances. I'll never forget how much happiness she brought me in those briefs moments when I could ignore the darkness. I had originally planned to kill myself last winter but never got around to it. (Parts of this letter were written over a year ago, other parts days before doing this.) It was wrong of me to involve myself in her life if this were a possibility and I should have just left her alone, even though we only dated for a few months and things ended a long time ago. She's just one more person in a long list of people I've hurt.

I could spend pages talking about the other relationships I've had that were ruined because of my problems and my confusion related to the darkness. I've hurt so many great people because of who I am and my inability to experience what needs to be experienced. All I can say is that I tried to be honest with people about what I thought was true.

I've spent my life hurting people. Today will be the last time.

I've told different people a lot of things, but I've never told anyone about what happened to me, ever, for obvious reasons. It took me a while to realize that no matter how close you are to someone or how much they claim to love you, people simply cannot keep secrets. I learned this a few years ago when I thought I was gay and told people. The more harmful the secret, the juicier the gossip and the more likely you are to be betrayed. People don't care about their word or what they've promised, they just do whatever the fuck they want and justify it later. It feels incredibly lonely to realize you can never share something with someone and have it be between just the two of you. I don't blame anyone in particular, I guess it's just how people are. Even if I felt like this is something I could have shared, I have no interest in being part of a friendship or relationship where the other person views me as the damaged and contaminated person that I am. So even if I were able to trust someone, I probably would not have told them about what happened to me. At this point I simply don't care who knows.

I feel an evil inside me. An evil that makes me want to end life. I need to stop this. I need to make sure I don't kill someone, which is not something that can be easily undone. I don't know if this is related to what happened to me or something different. I recognize the irony of killing myself to prevent myself from killing someone else, but this decision should indicate what I'm capable of.

So I've realized I will never escape the darkness or misery associated with it and I have a responsibility to stop myself from physically harming others.

I'm just a broken, miserable shell of a human being. Being molested has defined me as a person and shaped me as a human being and it has made me the monster I am and there's nothing I can do to escape it. I don't know any other existence. I don't know what life feels like where I'm apart from any of this. I actively despise the person I am. I just feel fundamentally broken, almost non-human. I feel like an animal that woke up one day in a human body, trying to make sense of a foreign world, living among creatures it doesn't understand and can't connect with.

I have accepted that the darkness will never allow me to be in a relationship. I will never go to sleep with someone in my arms, feeling the comfort of their hands around me. I will never know what uncontimated intimacy is like. I will never have an exclusive bond with someone, someone who can be the recipient of all the love I have to give. I will never have children, and I wanted to be a father so badly. I think I would have made a good dad. And even if I had fought through the darkness and married and had children all while being unable to feel intimacy, I could have never done that if suicide were a possibility. I did try to minimize pain, although I know that this decision will hurt many of you. If this hurts you, I hope that you can at least forget about me quickly.

There's no point in identifying who molested me, so I'm just going to leave it at that. I doubt the word of a dead guy with no evidence about something that happened over twenty years ago would have much sway.

You may wonder why I didn't just talk to a professional about this. I've seen a number of doctors since I was a teenager to talk about other issues and I'm positive that another doctor would not have helped. I was never given one piece of actionable advice, ever. More than a few spent a large part of the session reading their notes to remember who I was. And I have no interest in talking about being raped as a child, both because I know it wouldn't help and because I have no confidence it would remain secret. I know the legal and practical limits of doctor/patient confidentiality, growing up in a house where we'd hear stories about the various mental illnesses of famous people, stories that were passed down through generations. All it takes is one doctor who thinks my story is interesting enough to share or a doctor who thinks it's her right or responsibility to contact the authorities and have me identify the molestor (justifying her decision by telling herself that someone else might be in danger). All it takes is a single doctor who violates my trust, just like the "friends" who I told I was gay did, and everything would be made public and I'd be forced to live in a world where people would know how fucked up I am. And yes, I realize this indicates that I have severe trust issues, but they're based on a large number of experiences with people who have shown a profound disrepect for their word and the privacy of others.

People say suicide is selfish. I think it's selfish to ask people to continue living painful and miserable lives, just so you possibly won't feel sad for a week or two. Suicide may be a permanent solution to a temporary problem, but it's also a permanent solution to a ~23 year-old problem that grows more intense and overwhelming every day.

Some people are just dealt bad hands in this life. I know many people have it worse than I do, and maybe I'm just not a strong person, but I really did try to deal with this. I've tried to deal with this every day for the last 23 years and I just can't fucking take it anymore.

I often wonder what life must be like for other people. People who can feel the love from others and give it back unadulterated, people who can experience sex as an intimate and joyous experience, people who can experience the colors and happenings of this world without constant misery. I wonder who I'd be if things had been different or if I were a stronger person. It sounds pretty great.

I'm prepared for death. I'm prepared for the pain and I am ready to no longer exist. Thanks to the strictness of New Jersey gun laws this will probably be much more painful than it needs to be, but what can you do. My only fear at this point is messing something up and surviving.


I'd also like to address my family, if you can call them that. I despise everything they stand for and I truly hate them, in a non-emotional, dispassionate and what I believe is a healthy way. The world will be a better place when they're dead--one with less hatred and intolerance.

If you're unfamiliar with the situation, my parents are fundamentalist Christians who kicked me out of their house and cut me off financially when I was 19 because I refused to attend seven hours of church a week.

They live in a black and white reality they've constructed for themselves. They partition the world into good and evil and survive by hating everything they fear or misunderstand and calling it love. They don't understand that good and decent people exist all around us, "saved" or not, and that evil and cruel people occupy a large percentage of their church. They take advantage of people looking for hope by teaching them to practice the same hatred they practice.

A random example:

"I am personally convinced that if a Muslim truly believes and obeys the Koran, he will be a terrorist." - George Zeller, August 24, 2010.

If you choose to follow a religion where, for example, devout Catholics who are trying to be good people are all going to Hell but child molestors go to Heaven (as long as they were "saved" at some point), that's your choice, but it's fucked up. Maybe a God who operates by those rules does exist. If so, fuck Him.

Their church was always more important than the members of their family and they happily sacrificed whatever necessary in order to satisfy their contrived beliefs about who they should be.

I grew up in a house where love was proxied through a God I could never believe in. A house where the love of music with any sort of a beat was literally beaten out of me. A house full of hatred and intolerance, run by two people who were experts at appearing kind and warm when others were around. Parents who tell an eight year old that his grandmother is going to Hell because she's Catholic. Parents who claim not to be racist but then talk about the horrors of miscegenation. I could list hundreds of other examples, but it's tiring.

Since being kicked out, I've interacted with them in relatively normal ways. I talk to them on the phone like nothing happened. I'm not sure why. Maybe because I like pretending I have a family. Maybe I like having people I can talk to about what's been going on in my life. Whatever the reason, it's not real and it feels like a sham. I should have never allowed this reconnection to happen.

I wrote the above a while ago, and I do feel like that much of the time. At other times, though, I feel less hateful. I know my parents honestly believe the crap they believe in. I know that my mom, at least, loved me very much and tried her best. One reason I put this off for so long is because I know how much pain it will cause her. She has been sad since she found out I wasn't "saved", since she believes I'm going to Hell, which is not a sadness for which I am responsible. That was never going to change, and presumably she believes the state of my physical body is much less important than the state of my soul. Still, I cannot intellectually justify this decision, knowing how much it will hurt her. Maybe my ability to take my own life, knowing how much pain it will cause, shows that I am a monster who doesn't deserve to live. All I know is that I can't deal with this pain any longer and I'm am truly sorry I couldn't wait until my family and everyone I knew died so this could be done without hurting anyone. For years I've wished that I'd be hit by a bus or die while saving a baby from drowning so my death might be more acceptable, but I was never so lucky.


To those of you who have shown me love, thank you for putting up with all my shittiness and moodiness and arbitrariness. I was never the person I wanted to be. Maybe without the darkness I would have been a better person, maybe not. I did try to be a good person, but I realize I never got very far.

I'm sorry for the pain this causes. I really do wish I had another option. I hope this letter explains why I needed to do this. If you can't understand this decision, I hope you can at least forgive me.

Bill Zeller


Please save this letter and repost it if gets deleted. I don't want people to wonder why I did this. I disseminated it more widely than I might have otherwise because I'm worried that my family might try to restrict access to it. I don't mind if this letter is made public. In fact, I'd prefer it be made public to people being unable to read it and drawing their own conclusions.

Feel free to republish this letter, but only if it is reproduced in its entirety.

If you couldn't read the whole thing, don't feel bad. I've had to skip around in it a bit as well. There's just...too much. Too much damage, too much pain, too much tragedy. It's overwhelming. It should be. It haunted me all day. (And if it resonated with your own experience too much, please read what Joel Johnson at Gizmodo has to say about the letter. It is every bit as true as it is probably hard for you to believe.)

Now, to strip gears just a touch, that's what state I was in when I read the post by that idiot theist who wants you to believe that I, as an atheist, have no reason for not accepting what happened to that young man as just and moral. He wants you to think I find that just as fine and dandy as sex between consenting adults because I was raised without religion and have never claimed a god or religion as my own. He wants you to think it's all the same to me.

In short, he wants you think I'm not human. Because I'm an atheist and he wants that to be wrong.

I don't know whether he believes this or is just trying to score cheap points for his "side." I don't care. Either one makes him despicable. In order for him to believe it, he can't feel overwhelmed by the wrongness of what happened to that young man, so that he thinks religion is required to keep everyone from doing it. Or he has to be so prejudiced against atheists as to believe that my lack of religion would keep that letter from reaching me emotionally.

If he's trying to score in some argument ongoing in order to promote his religion, he's both dishonest and adding to the social stigma borne by atheists. But maybe that's okay if it provides additional pressure for atheists to convert, even if it requires that the rape of children be turned into a rhetorical football.

It's not okay with me, though. It's an insult at every level. It denies the tears I've been fighting ever since reading that letter. It denies me my humanity. It denies the work I've done to point out the dangers of arbitrary authority. It denies the fact that every child I interact with comes away from the encounter with a little bit more permission to be defiant, to subvert the rules, to say, "no," to any authority, even Mom and Dad. (Yeah, I'm a hit with the parents.)

But it doesn't work that way. I can't be made to go away by a simple denial. I am a fact. My tears are facts, although you wouldn't have heard anything about them if the idiot hadn't tried to call them imaginary. My record on consensual sex is a fact, and so is my atheism.

So as long as this idiot goes around claiming that god and religion are required for morality, he is hurting himself and calling his other arguments into question. It won't matter to some people, of course, since as I noted at the start of this post, you can't make people think. But to anyone else, it will be obvious what kind of tired, transparent, and insulting apologetics he's dabbling in.

I just wish that meant more to me right now.
Continue reading...

January 05, 2011

A Necessary Break

It's time for me to take a break from blogging about the anti-accuser reactions to the allegations against Julian Assange. Why? I know there's more to do, but I can't do it. At least I can't do it without damaging myself.

I didn't take this on as some kind of academic project. I didn't write these posts as some kind of ecological niche project to raise the profile of my blog. I did it because I have to. While I have the energy to fight it, this isn't something I can turn away from.

This kind of crap--this irrational grasping after reasons to keep some bigwig on his pedestal, this wild brainstorming of trivial, unexamined excuses to stick fingers in ears when someone says they've been violated--this damages people and it damages whatever claim to civilization we have. It blurs the line over whether a woman has the right to control what happens to her body, for women as well as men. It says demanding that right will only get you revictimized, even if you manage to get legal authorities to take you seriously. It prioritizes the claims of the powerful over those of the powerless, entrenching privilege by legitimizing the idea that answering a few questions from legal authorities is an unbearable burden that requires that the person asking for this simple redress submit any privacy she might previously have claimed.

And it says that rape isn't something people should have to think about.

I admit it. I wish that last were true. However, the last time the subject came up, I turned away from the guy who wanted to know why I wanted people to think about rape (of course it was a guy) to the women around me. "So, how many of you have had to think about rape recently?"

Everybody nodded. I turned back to the (sincere, confused) guy across the table. "Seems only fair."

Honestly, though, I don't demand that every guy spend a bunch of time thinking about rape. I just want the ones who don't, who won't, to shut the fuck up on the subject. If they won't, I'm going to do my damnedest to make them think about it.

It's going to cost me, though. It always costs me. It costs in energy and eloquence I could spend on something else. It costs time, because I've got such a tiny window to get through to people that I must get things right. And it costs in me. This is a subject where I've got my own set of triggers, for fear and for rage, and if I'm going to fight it, I have to spend far too much time among people who thoroughly creep me out.

So I'm done for the moment. I haven't covered everything, but there are other people out there fighting similar fights. It's not that hard to find them if you're willing to look. So look before you speak.

And I'll be back at this at some point. I'd like to stop, but as long as my blog never goes a day without someone, and usually several someones, finding this post in a search, that's not going to happen.

January 04, 2011

Assange and Lover's Revenge

This post continues my examination of the general wrongness that is some of the arguments being made by Assange supporters wishing to dismiss the rape allegations against him. Before commenting here, you should read the rest of these:

Assange and Sex by Surprise
Assange and Real Rape
Assange and the Victim Conspiracy
Assange and the Presumption of Innocence
How Must She Behave to Have Been Raped?

Part 5: Assange's accuser was clearly following her own plan for revenge!!!
You've read this one. You've seen it ad nauseum. Still, the basics: One of Assange's accuser's wrote a blog post laying out "7 Steps to Legal Revenge." Shortly thereafter:

Julian Assange hurt her feelings, she was angry about it and decided to take revenge on him. The main problem now is that she would never withdraw little lie, because she is responsible now for a huge thing and the whole world would hate her if she confesses. She puts herself in a pretty bad position, even if she regrets her lie by now. In order to protect herself, she would never ever admit that she lied.

The bottom line: Don’t sleep with feminists, and if you are drunk and do it anyway… Don’t sleep with her feminist girlfriend and hurt her. These girls think they are smart and know how to use Google to find funny stuff about Revenge. Another bad thing: They know feminist state attorneys.

For the record, no, it wasn't remotely difficult to find an example laced with that much mysogyny. It was the first post I found with the full English translation of the accuser's post. Also, don't read the rest unless you're into that sort of thing. Gack.

As we've seen in my other posts, reality doesn't always live up to the myth in this situation, largely because a large number of people have been involved in myth-making. How about in this case?

Well, to start with, Assange's accuser (Ms. A) didn't write the blog post. She translated an eHow article on the topic. It no longer seems to have a working permalink, but it was cached here, and snapshots are provided below for documentation. Click to see full size.

So, right off the bat, accuracy is losing out, but that's not really the important part of this argument. The important part is the idea that Ms. A's actions are following the plan laid out in these posts. So, let's look at those seven steps (as translated back into English) one at a time to figure out whether that's actually the case.

Step 1
Consider very carefully if you really must take revenge. It is almost always better to forgive than to avenge.

Well, that's not a promising start for supporting revenge apologetics. "Don't take revenge."

Step 2
Think about why you want revenge. You need to be clear about who to take revenge on, as well as why. Revenge is never directed against only one person, but also the actions of the person.

This loses a bit in multiple translations, but it's the start of a repeated theme of making the punishment fit the "crime." Remember that according to the timeline given in the leaked police report, the crime here is having sex with someone else two days after having once had sex with Ms. A and while otherwise staying in her apartment, platonically. That's the deed Ms. A's plan tells her to fit.

Step 3
The principle of proportionality. Remember that revenge will not only match the deed in size but also in nature. A good revenge is linked to what has been done against you. For example if you want revenge on someone who cheated or who dumped you, you should use a punishment with dating/sex/fidelity involved.

More exhortations to make the punishment fit. Are the people who are saying this describes what happens suggesting that filing rape charges is proportional to having someone you slept with once and don't otherwise have a relationship with sleep with someone else?

Step 4
Do a brainstorm of appropriate measures for the category of revenge you’re after. To continue the example above, you can sabotage your victim’s current relationship, such as getting his new partner to be unfaithful or ensure that he gets a madman after him. Use your imagination!

Hmm. The madman starts to sound promising. However, a look the original post suggests that "madman after him" means something like providing him with a crazy stalker as a new love interest. Nope, we're still nowhere near suggesting rape charges as revenge for having another one-night stand too soon after your one-night stand.

Step 5
Figure out how you can systematically take revenge. Send your victim a series of letters and photographs that make your victim’s new partner believe that you are still together which is better than to tell just one big lie on one single occasion.

Right. So what we want to do based on this is...anything but walk into a police station with one big story. And again, these are actions directed at the revenge victim's love life, not personal liberty.

Step 6
Rank your systematic revenge schemes from low to high in terms of likely success, required input from you, and degree of satisfaction when you succeed. The ideal, of course, is a revenge as strong as possible but this requires a lot of hard work and effort for it to turn out exactly as you want it to.

So she thought, "How high is the cost of a good set of rape charges?" Pretty high, actually. In the case of someone as high-profile as Assange, backed by a fanboi army that doesn't believe in privacy but does believe it's on a world-saving mission, those costs are predictably astronomical. Are the people making this argument suggesting that Ms. A sat down and calculated those costs--and still went ahead with this?

Step 7
And remember what your goals are while you are operating, ensure that your victim will suffer the same way as he made you suffer.

And we end with one more call for fitting punishment.

In short, in order to believe that the post Ms. A translated is anything like a blueprint for what happened, we would have to believe that Ms. A viewed Assange's behavior as (1) beyond forgiveness, (2) emotionally comparable and proportional to being charged with rape, and (3) worth having her life torn apart and her privacy violated. We would have to believe that Ms. A's friends agreed with her to the point of being willing to lie to the police about what she told them when instead of telling her to snap out of it and get a life.

There's no indication that Ms. A had any interest in Assange beyond his social status and his political mission (reading this, I can't blame her; even for a geek, this is so not romantic). Assange's own public comments about the situation state that he stayed with Ms. A for days but don't claim that she attempted to continue their sexual relationship. Where is the motivation for this kind of revenge? What horror did Assange perpetrate on Ms. A to make this all worthwhile?

The people who are arguing that Ms. A has simply done what this post suggests need to fill in that blank in their reasoning. Without it, their argument suggests that whatever Assange did, it was far worse than being a slut.