Sunday, September 21, 2014

You know what would be awesome?

If you've been following this blog or any part of the atheosphere lately, you know that famous atheist Richard Dawkins has recently taken to throwing rocks at the hornet's nest he helped build. (In case you've been living in a cave with no wifi, start here and here for some background).

His latest entertaining spectacle was to accuse Adam Lee of lying in his piece in the Gaurdian. The article consists of reprinting a bunch of stuff Dawkins posted, framed by Adam Lee's opinion that Dawkins's behavior is bad for the atheist movement. It's not even necessary debunk the accusation of lying -- it doesn't even make sense. It's like Dawkins has crossed the line from merely displaying a glaring blind spot to seriously giving the impression that he's losing his marbles.

But you know what would be awesome?

Imagine Dawkins posts something even more bizarre tomorrow. Then he posts something even more bizarre the next day. Then he waits a week or two for it to percolate through the community and then announces:

It was all a test. I wanted to see whether my fans really embrace critical thinking. I wanted to see, given a choice between loyalty to me personally and loyalty to the ideals I stand for, who would choose which one.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Win-win for Feminism!!

When I was writing my post the other day on the grand reunification of the feminist movement, I was kind of wondering what it looks like from the other side's perspective. And I think this piece by Amanda Marcotte "There Is No Such Thing as Radical Feminism Anymore" perhaps captures it.

It's very short, so go read it and come back.

I agree essentially with Marcotte's points. I take issue with her refusal to call the anti-trans radical feminists by their chosen name. They still exist, and they still call themselves radical feminists -- they were recently profiled in the New Yorker. And, more to the point, they really are one modern splinter of the radical feminist movement of the 60's and 70's. To deny them that name is a little like saying that the FLDS have no business calling themselves Mormon.

On the other hand, Marcotte is totally right that those radical feminists are not anywhere near the mainstream of the feminist movement. One can certainly argue that they aren't the true intellectual heirs of the earlier radical feminists. Marcotte is also totally right that the original radical feminists brought us a lot of fantastic ideas that are now completely mainstream, at the heart of current feminist thought:
It was not enough to pass the ERA or legalize abortion, they believed, but we should also talk about cultural issues, such as misogyny, objectification, rape, and domestic violence.

Personally, I can't help but feel like "Yay, my team won!!" As I wrote the other day, on the issues I cared about, my position won the mainstream, and sex-positive feminism succeeded in making itself irrelevant.

But the other side won, too. Their bad ideas, like trans-women not deserving to be seen as women, plus the items I mentioned the other day, have been stripped off and shunted to the margins, and their good ideas have won the mainstream of feminist thought. They also succeeded in making themselves irrelevant as a separate movement.

It's the textbook example of a win-win situation.

Stuff the atheists can learn from the feminists!

Whatever happened to sex-positive vs. sex-negative feminism?

Back when I was in college and grad school, I thought there was a significant division within the feminist movement over the question of whether sex is good or bad for women. As I've written, my thoughts on this division have evolved, and it's not just me. The division has disappeared to such a degree that when I was writing my latest post on Saturday, I started wondering whether it ever really was a thing. Was I just hallucinating?

So I got out some of my old feminist books off the shelf, and confirmed that, no, I was not hallucinating. I think the following statement from Ariel Levy in the 20th anniversary edition of Andrea Dworkin's Intercourse kind of sums it up:

With the possible exception of the Shakers, it is difficult to think of an American movement that has failed more spectacularly than antipornography feminism. In the late 1970's, when a prominent faction of the women's liberation movement -- including Brownmiller, Dworkin, Steinem, Morgan, Audrey Lourde, the writer Grace Paley, and the poet Adrienne Rich -- turned their attention to fighting pornography, porn was still something marginalized, as opposed to what it is now: a source of inspiration for all of popular culture. [...] If the antiporn crusade was a losing battle, it was also a costly one: it divided, some would say destroyed, the women's movement. The term "prosex feminist" was coined by women who wanted to distance themselves from the antiporn faction.

The idea was that sexually explicit words and images created for the express purpose of arousal are inherently harmful to women. Not just abuses within the porn industry or negative messages in some types of porn, but the whole kit-and-kaboodle, on principle. It supposedly caused rape. This theory was part of the mainstream of feminist thought as recently as 2006 when I wrote my blog entries "A feminist in favor of porn" and "yes means yes".

One problem with the "porn causes rape" claim is that there was never any evidence to back it up. And, as I explained in "porn and me", that inspired some people to claim that instead of insisting on evidence, we should value supposedly female types of reasoning like intuition or some other such rot -- which made me hate the antiporn feminists all the more.

Then there was this little problem with antiporn crusader Andrea Dworkin muddying the waters on the definition of rape (as I discussed here). In the early days of the Internet, I had the misfortune of getting into a dispute with a feminist who claimed that heterosexual sexual intercourse is inherently degrading to women -- that, regardless of her desire or consent, the mere act of a penis penetrating a vagina is psychologically harmful to the vagina-haver -- and cited Dworkin as proof that this is "the feminist position." I assume this is a misrepresentation of whatever Dworkin said, but the experience reinforced my impression that Dworkin has had a very harmful impact on feminist thought.

As a consequence, people like me ended up going too far in the other direction. As recently as ten years ago, I would have told you that I don't think that feminists should focus on issues like date rape or misogyny. I would have given some reasonable-sounding reasons for this, but looking back, I think it was more a question of the fact that those issues were claimed by Catherine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, and their fans -- and, frankly, I didn't want to be in the same movement with those guys.

But then what happened?

With the rise of the Internet and the corresponding rise in instant access to all sorts of content, the evidence became overwhelming that sexually explicit imagery for the purpose of arousal is not inherently harmful to women -- and, in particular, it does not cause rape. The idea that porn causes rape dropped completely out of the mainstream of feminist thought.

One of the awesome things about this development is that it demonstrates quite conclusively that basing one's conclusions on evidence is a female type of reasoning! The other awesome part is that we don't have feminists debating about whether sex is good or bad across the board -- we've realigned along the idea that consent and autonomous choice are the measures of whether a given sex act is good or bad. And now we're mostly all friends again.

Last Saturday morning I wrote about how making women feel safe and welcome in the atheist movement actually increases the probability of a given straight male atheist getting (consensually) laid. I want to add the disclaimer that that's not the reason why women should be included in the atheist movement. Women should be included in the atheist movement because women are people too, and can contribute to and benefit from the movement just like any other people. However, since the sexists were claiming that the feminists are just a bunch of man-hating prudes, I wanted to make it clear that that's not true. Helping guys get consensual sex is not the point of feminism, however it is a noteworthy side-effect.

Unfortunately, since Saturday morning, Richard Dawkins's descent into taking leave of his critical thinking skills has only gotten more appalling (see these links). He has decided that his new battle is to make sure we lady atheists know our place in the atheist movement.

Sam Harris also got into the act, posting a defense of his claim that critical thinking is a guy thing. Harris surprises me less than Dawkins. Sam Harris is the guy who claimed that guns are on balance beneficial to women, including in situations of domestic violence. He even posted on his FAQ that his debating opponent's case was based on evidence that shows the opposite, yet, instead of wondering (and researching) why that might be, he continued to repeat his initial reasoning for his original (debunked) assertion. That's not how critical thinking works. A similar thing happened when Harris debated a security expert over his idea that airport security should intentionally adopt a policy of racially profiling people who "look like Muslims." Basically the biggest mystery is how this clown got on the stage in the first place.

Does the arc of history bend towards justice? In general, not necessarily. But the atheist movement -- with its love of the scientific method in all its error-correcting glory -- is a different story. The "Men's Rights Activists" that are currently such a blight on our movement...? Their influence will decline and vanish, even if some of our most popular big names choose to sign onto Team Sexism.

In the worst-cast scenario, Richard Dawkins will do about a decade's worth of damage to the atheist movement he helped to create -- and he will flush his own legacy down the toilet in the process. (Are these tweets really what you want to be remembered for, Mr. Dawkins? Because that's the direction you're heading...)

This should be an interesting ride.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Atheism and ruining it for everybody!!

After this latest round of sexy sexism in the atheist community, I've decided it's time for me to weigh in.

I hope that you recall that I'm the lady who advocates having sex on the first date. I am enthusiastically sex-positive. And today I would like to remind you that free love only thrives in an atmosphere where there is a healthy respect for consent.

Back when I was young and cute (before becoming a (happily married) old lady), I would have been more than happy to go to atheist conferences with the express intention of hooking up. And it is the people who are in favor of clear anti-harassment policies at conferences that make that sort of thing possible. I'm sorry to have to explain something that should be a no-brainer, but just because a chick is looking for NSA sex, it doesn't mean that she wants to be harassed or raped by whichever guy sees her first.

If you are a straight guy looking for a little fun and love, the rapists and rape apologists are not doing you a favor. Quite the opposite. Those guys are telling women: "If you wear that, if you get drunk, if you flirt at a conference -- then it's your own fault if you get raped." And when that's the message that wins the day, then that smart, hot, fun girl you might have met at that conference...? She won't be there. She's smart enough not to go.

Richard Dawkins in particular has been putting his foot in his mouth lately with idiotic distinctions. ("Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that's an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think.") Well, let me make one of my own:

Personally, I have never been raped. I have had an ex-boyfriend lock me in an apartment, hold a knife to my throat, and threaten to kill me (see here). Given the choice between the two, I'd say I would have preferred to have been "just" raped. (And, by the same token, I'm pretty damn glad it didn't happen in the US where the equivalent guy would have had a gun -- in which case I probably wouldn't be here typing this today.) But those aren't the choices. It's not like there's one camp that says, "Oh, I would never rape a woman -- sure I like to mutilate and kill them, but not rape them," and the other says, "Oh, would never hurt a woman -- I just like to non-violently harass and rape them." The real two camps are the people see women as autonomous humans and those that don't.

In my situation, it wasn't rape, but it was the same damn thing. It was a question of a man being led to believe that if a woman won't be with him in the way he wants, then he's perfectly justified (as man) in making her do what he wants. She has no business making such decisions for herself.

It is the rapists and rape apologists who say stupid shit like "You should be glad he only raped you -- he might have killed you and cut you up in little pieces." Because those were his options. A normal person says something more like, "Wow, I'm sorry you had any contact at all with that criminal -- he needs to be stopped before he rapes again, or worse."

As far as Dawkins is concerned, I don't think he is for or against hearing more diverse perspectives in the atheist movement. I think it's simply a subject he's never has any reason to think deeply about, and, consequently, unsurprisingly, he has nothing insightful to say on the subject. Unfortunately, because he's the famous guy, he gets quoted on it, and his voice is amplified above the voices of people who actually have expertise and interesting things to say about it.

I agree with Terry Firma that it would be in Dawkins's own interest if somebody would succeed in persuading him to stay the hell away from Twitter. I was thinking that two twitter scandals earlier. But I'm less in agreement about this point Terry made:

It’s not a breakdown of his intellect, which is intact. Rather, Dawkins seems to suffer from an extreme form of tone-deafness. It’s almost as if Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock is modeled after him: cool, rational, detached, and faintly amused by the emotional human fools with whom he is forced to interact.

I think that is an insult to Mr. Spock, who is one of the most awesome fictional characters of all time. I mean, Spock might say insensitive things when asked, but he would have the good sense not to go out of his way to broadcast his random stupid musings.

I think Dawkins's real problem is a debilitating case of "I shit gold" syndrome. After being worshiped for such a long time by so many smart people, he's come to believe that any idea that pops into his head must be made of gold. It has severely compromised his ability to critically analyse his own thoughts and actions, which is unfortunate because (not just criticism, but) self-criticism should be one of the most highly regarded virtues in our movement.

Coincidentally, I should be going to see Dawkins in person today. He's here in Zürich giving a lecture at the Denkfest -- friends of mine will be in attendance. And because I want to make friends with the Zürich Freethinkers (who, I think, organized the thing), I am very hesitant to be typing this. I don't want to be "the difficult one" like I was back in church, many years ago. Yet, I also don't want my attendance to be registered as a vote for "we have to get somebody like Dawkins because he brings in the audience and the money." Therefore, I will be attending tomorrow. I am totally in favor of and impressed by everything about this conference except for the fact that it was billed as "RICHARD DAWKINS!!!! and some other people..."

I hope the local freethinkers will be willing to forgive me for this. I'm sure they are already well aware of how herding cats works. We mean well, but we are simply never going to all get in line.

But hopefully our movement is capable of self-reflection and learning.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Fun at Camp Quest Switzerland!!

So, how was Camp Quest? you ask.

It was a fantastic experience, and I'm really glad my kids and I participated!

If you haven't heard of it, Camp Quest is an organization of secular summer camps -- mostly in the US, but also in the UK and (luckily for me!) here in Switzerland. But before I get into the pictures and what we did there, I would like to explain a bit about why I wanted to participate in this.

As a kid, I always liked going to camp. It was great to be out in nature, doing things that were completely different from my usual life. I even liked sharing tents or cabins with a bunch of other girls (with midnight activities like ghost stories and such) despite the fact that I always had difficulty making friends and being accepted as part of the group with other girls. Whether it was with the Girl Scouts, a school camp, or (most frequently) a Mormon church camp, it was a fun adventure!

Now that I no longer believe nor practice Mormonism, I don't have the built-in community that comes with it. The opportunity of passing camp fun along to the next generation as an adult volunteer is one of the things I gave up when I left the church. Probably many of you are thinking, "I hated camp! Not having to got to camp is one of the perks of being an atheist or a none -- not a drawback!" But, as I've said many times, religion and religious organizations fill many roles in people's lives, and it's totally normal that the parts one person loved may be exactly the parts someone else hated, and vice-versa. So if you hated camp, this post isn't about telling you you're wrong, it's about the variety of different experiences we humans enjoy.

In my case, one of the parts of camp that I hated was the pressure to feel "spiritual" emotions and to sit around and express them in some sort of testimony format. As a Mormon kid, I spent a lot of time trying to psyche myself into liking testimony meetings (and tried desperately to gain a testimony -- this stuff is really important for Mormons), but I was really fighting my built-in reaction that this stuff is really, really creepy and weird. I know a lot of people sincerely like that sort of thing (including people who don't believe in the supernatural), but for me personally, a big perk of Camp Quest was no testimony meeting. Nothing even remotely resembling it.

A lot of people in the non-believer community feel that we shouldn't be doing things to ape religion (like make our own summer camps). And if Camp Quest really isn't about trying to indoctrinate kids to being atheists (i.e. some sort of equal-and-opposite of Jesus Camp), then why bother having a specifically "secular" camp, as opposed to just sending your kids to some sort of generic science camp or something...?

In response, I would say that religion didn't invent summer camp. Summer camp does not inherently have anything to do with ideology, but it's normal to have a variety of camps focused on different themes. Camp Quest Switzerland in 2014 included lots of fun workshops in science, mathematics, and skepticism, but it was not about sitting around telling the kids what to believe or patting ourselves on the back for our shared ideology. In fact, there was another mom who had come along to volunteer as well who is a theist. She doesn't participate in organized religion (she's from a Catholic background, and her husband was from a Muslim background), but she's raising her kids to believe in God. And there's no reason for that to be a problem in this environment.

But why not just a generic science or other camp? Why something that has any ideological connection?

Well, I actually want to be part of a community. I volunteer at my kids' school, I participate in neighborhood events, and I think there's something to be said for participating in local groups with people you share ideas and interests with as well. (My husband and I are planning to join the Zürich Freethinkers as soon as I figure out how to work the website.) For the past few years, we've been sending the kids to Vacances Edcuatives in France during the February vacations (mostly because we don't want our kids to be the only ones in their class who don't ski, yet we don't want to bother to go skiing ourselves), and that has been a good experience -- but it's not the same as participating in a camp that is connected with a real community that you can be a part of.

Now, after all that intro, here's what we did!!

First of all, the location was gorgeous, up in the mountains!

Normally I like to enjoy Switzerland's beautiful mountains from somewhere down on the ground looking up at them. Actually going up into the mountains, riding along on those tiny, winding roads where one slip of the driver's hand could send you falling to your doom -- well, it's the sort of trip that I love in retrospect, after I'm back on the ground alive, like now. And this trip was no exception. 

But seriously, it was very cool to spend a week in a tiny village on the side of a mountain with a beautiful view of the valley and the mountains and mountain villages on the other side. And it was awesome to celebrate the Swiss national holiday (August first) in real Swiss style!

For much of the week, the kids participated in activities offered by the local tourism industry: workshops on making bread and cheese, a hike to a cabin where a local storyteller told us some folk tales in dialect (which I didn't understand at all, BTW, but it was interesting), and a nature hike/treasure hunt.

Plus the adult leaders of Camp Quest offered a series of workshops at the chalet where we were staying. In science and nature, we had an activity learning about the local plants, plus some physics experiments such as making a pickle glow by running electricity through it, and a hands-on biology lab dissecting the heart and lungs of a pig.

There was also an improv theater workshop that my son Léo really enjoyed, and two skepticism-themed workshops: one on illusions and one on homeopathy where the kids got to make their own homeopathic remedies. Note that the kids weren't fed any conclusions about homeopathy -- they simply got to see what it really is, and they were left to draw their own conclusions.

My workshop was a mathematics workshop on tiling the plane. For it, I made about a million Penrose Tiles for the kids to play with:

The Penrose Tiles were fun, but even after having done a few recreational math workshops at my kids' school and now this, I still think my presentation style need work. But it gets a bit better with each experience!

All in all a fun experience -- I hope to send my kids again next year!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What else is wrong with Harry Potter?

Before starting a post like this one, of course I have to start with the disclaimer that I am a fan. I have read all of the books at least twice (to myself, and then as a bedtime story to my kids), and I've seen all the films multiple times. It is only because of the enjoyment I've gotten from the series that I waste time contemplating it and getting bothered by its flaws. Remember the parable of criticism is a complement -- if it were total crap, I wouldn't bother to post about it at all. So I don't want to see any comments accusing me of being a black-hearted Harry Potter-hater.

My second disclaimer is that, yes, I should probably be spending my time on something more important, like, say, climate change. But since it looks like our species is heading into oblivion and there's precious little an individual like me can do to stop it, I like to take my worrying down a notch and worry instead about stuff that really, really doesn't matter. Hence this post.

I've heard tons of different insights on what are the critical flaws of the Harry Potter series. Pretty much all of them were valid criticisms. For me, though, I feel like the top problem is that -- while Harry Potter is an interesting character -- he is not interesting enough to carry seven weighty tomes. I know, he's the chosen one and everything, but the fact that pretty much everything important that happens in his universe revolves around Harry himself and a small circle of friends and acquaintances makes their world seem petty and simplistic. At one point McGonagall asks, "Why is it always you three?" -- and I spent most of the series asking the author the same question. Especially considering that the series has so many other interesting characters that I'd rather be reading about.

Then, since I've been trying to just relax this week, I hit upon the solution! Fan-fic! Who knows what amusing tales the various fans have invented for all of our favorite peripheral characters?

I decided to start with the most incongruous relationship in the entire series: Hermoine and Viktor Krum. So, this guy is one of the most famous sports stars in their entire wizarding world. He could have his pick of girls, to put it mildly. Yet, he falls for the nerdy co-protagonist, who, by the way, isn't even interested in him. I'm not saying it's impossible, but I will say that this relationship requires some explanation/motivation that is sorely lacking in the books and films. But maybe the fans will come to the rescue!

Sadly, the first one I found on this topic was so laden with technical discussion of Quidditch strategy and sports scenes, I was unable to slog through it far enough to get to the point where he takes up with Hermoine. So I gave up on that one and decided to see if I could find some back-story for Regulus Black -- a fascinating character who (as far as I recall) doesn't make an appearance in the real story at all. There I found some interesting tales of his home life with his brother Sirius in their crazy evil London townhouse with their crazy evil parents. Good fun! So I decided to read some more from the Moony-Wormtail-Padfoot-Prongs generation.

Then a curious thing happened. I found it rather upsetting to watch popular sports star James Potter and his fun-loving buddies bullying young Severus Snape -- and winning the hearts of the fans (not to mention the girl) in the process. You can try to blame the fan-fic authors, but they're merely highlighting and expanding upon a key point from the original story.

I've written about bullying before, and I like to believe this is a subject where our culture has made tremendous progress in the past few decades. In stories from the fifties, it was typical to see bullying presented as par for the course, and it was unsurprising to see an author present a scene of bullying with the clear subtext that the victim deserved it because he's such a loser -- and expect the audience to view the bully as the more likable guy overall. It's disappointing to see this happen in a modern story.

As someone who was "different" as a kid -- and consequently bullied by the popular kids -- I naturally identify with Snape a lot more than I do with James and Lily and their friends. And the worst part of the story is that -- unlike a typical real-world bullying situation -- in this case the whole "it gets better" thing didn't happen. After being traumatized as a teen, Snape went on to be a bitter, spiteful, miserable person until he died.

Don't get me wrong -- of course he was also awesome. I think Snape is hand down the best character in the series. And the actor in the films did a fantastic job of interpreting the character -- better than what was in the books alone. But the stuff that happened to him was awful.

Then I started feeling like a huge idiot because is there any stupider waste of emotional energy than sitting around feeling sorry for a fictional character? I need to get out there and find some real people with real problems whom I can help for real. ;)

In the meantime, allow me to present how it should have ended:

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Teaching kids to program with Android!

I finally updated my professional blog (for the first time in more than a year, lol) -- I wrote up a programming project I did for/with my kids.  I made a simple application called "SpriteFun" for the Android phone to help my kids learn programming.  Here it is!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Looking forward to Camp Quest!!

You may recall the time I visited Camp Quest Minnesota (if not, see here). Since then, I've been trying to find a way to send my kids there.  The problem is that we only get to visit friends and family in the US for a few weeks every other year or so, and we have a fantastic time visiting with them!!

It makes it tricky for me to take a week of this precious visiting time to send my kids to camp, no matter how cool...

Imagine my surprise when I was reading Greta Christina's fabulous book Coming Out Atheist, and found she mentioned Switzerland as one of the places where there's a Camp Quest!!

Naturally, I got in touch with the organizers and not only signed up my kids but volunteered to come along and help out myself.

The stuff that's planned looks like loads of fun!!  There will be some cool Science experiments (and some Math games and puzzles provided by yours truly) in addition to the usual camp stuff (nature hikes, campfires, etc.)

The camp will be held from the 27th of July to the 2nd of August 2014, and there are still openings -- so sign up now!!  It will be primarily a German-speaking camp, though some accommodation can be made for English or French speaking kids (especially if they have some working knowledge of German).

I'm really looking forward to this!  I enjoyed going to camp as a kid, and this is sure to be so much more fun than LDS girls' camp!  I'll report on how it goes. :D