December 31, 2010

Assange and the Presumption of Innocence

The misinformation campaign started by Julian Assange's Australian lawyer regarding the rape charges behind Sweden's extradition request continues, aided and abetted by a mess of hyperventilating fanbois (some of whom are female). In the next few days, I'll collect and address a mess of misrepresentations, conspiracy theories, rape myths, and logical fallacies here, mostly so I don't have to argue with them one at a time, over and over again. And again. And again.

Part 1: If you don't say Assange is innocent, you're saying he's guilty! Presumption of innocence!!!
This is the argument of a fanatic, frankly, and it's disturbing to keep finding it posted about here and there. It's also a perfectly false dichotomy, generally accompanied by a whopping dose of double-standard.

The presumption of innocence is a standard that's incorporated in many, if not most, Western, industrialized legal systems. It is, in fact, a good thing, allowing people to retain most of their rights while allegations are being examined. I say most, because people are generally required to cooperate to a certain extent in determining the truth behind an accusation--to participate in trials either directly or through a representative, to be subject to certain questions, whether they answer them or not.

Even here, however, there are procedures in place that require a generally independent judiciary to make some preliminary evaluation of the credibility of the accusation before cooperation can be compelled. Whether you agree with the decisions of judges in Assange's case, those procedures are being followed in Sweden and in the UK.

However, the presumption of innocence has also been adopted, to varying degrees, as a social standard for protecting the reputation of those accused of a crime. It's in the conflation of the legal and social standards that the problem arises here. Fanbois want this standard to be applied to Assange in the court of public opinion the same way it is in the legal system. However, at the same time, they are willing to convict Assange's accusers of lies, hysteria, and complicity with a global governmental conspiracy.

I've seen two defenses of this practice. The first is to note that the accusers are not charged with anything in Sweden. In addition to this argument coming from the same group who insist it's meaningful that Assange has not had charges formally filed, making all parties equal in this respect, this is part of that conflation of legal and social systems. A social double-standard is still a social double-standard (rising to the level of hypocrisy in this case) even if the legal status of the two parties were different, which they aren't.

The second defense of this practice isn't something I've seen baldly stated, but it's implicit in the idea that anyone not raining down on the heads of the alleged victims is saying Assange is guilty. That's the assertion that in order to maintain Assange's innocence, the women must be considered to be lying.

This is the false dichotomy. It relies on a misunderstanding of what a presumption actually is. If it's not clear to you what I'm talking about, go back to the part where I explain why the presumption of innocence is a good thing. In short, a presumption of innocence doesn't mean that we say we know anything about the truth behind an accusation. It means just the opposite.

In the social realm, it means we don't impose sanctions because it isn't our place to decide what the truth is, that this being a legal matter, we allow the legal system to move before rushing to judgment and acting on those judgments. It means we say we don't know.

In short, it means growing up and dealing with the uncertainty that is inherent in our not having been a party to anything that happened or being privy to anything but the most superficial and ambiguous indications of what's going on in the heads of either Assange or his accusers. It means waiting. That this is difficult for fanbois doesn't change what the presumption of innocence actually is.

December 30, 2010

Notes from the Front

Your Atheist Correspondent Reports Back from the War on Christmas
I'm not quite ready to do 2010 retrospective posts at the moment, although there are some I'd like to do. The end of 2010 has presented me with too much unfinished business. Some of it is things I need to do and say. Some of it is simply events hanging in the balance. Either way, it doesn't feel as though the year comes to a close tomorrow.

The Christmas rush is over, however, so I'll take a quick peek back at that through the lens of this mythical War on Christmas. There is little enough religion in my personal life that the bits that do crop up tend to get noticed, and since part of Christmas is spent with the most religious of the connections, I got to do lots of noticing last weekend.

The Lord Giveth
The "kids" in the connection are, for the first time this year, all in college or beyond. As everyone gathered around the pool table, there were jokes made about the appropriate use of college time being learning to drink and play pool. They had to be jokes, given the way the kids were playing pool and their reaction to the one among them who was exceptionally good.

He came in for a certain amount of teasing about how he was spending his study time. The teasing ended, though, when his brother playfully suggested maybe it was a "God-given gift" instead. I haven't been able to figure out why that statement killed the conversation. Too irreverent? Too silly? Nowhere to go from there? I don't know. All I can say is that it was a conversational lemming.

I Shall Not Want
I was disturbed later, however, when one of the adults made his own reference to God's gifts. He said something along the lines of "God is good to good people." The context made it clear he was talking about this world, not any hypothetical next one.

I...was creeped out, actually. Prosperity gospel. Fatalistic mumbo jumbo. Supernaturalistic fallacy. Magical antisocial self-justification. Giving it names can't come anywhere near describing how perfectly this goes against everything I do and am. The next time someone tells you an atheist has no reason to be "good"…yeah. This.

And I said nothing. Why? Because once I opened the gates to respond, I wouldn't have been able to stop. I wouldn't have been coherent enough to get a message through to anyone listening. And it would have made no difference to the person I was talking to, since anyone capable of believing that tortuous formula is quite capable of claiming persecution at the least disagreement, much less the relentless volley he'd have received.

Christ Is Risen
I'm happy to say that our tradition of giving a donation plus a small homemade gift is catching on, albeit in a small way. We get some similar gifts, even if we do still end up sitting in the midst of everyone else's wrapping paper and boxes. Eh, college kids need stuff far more than we do. We're also lucky that the charities supported are ones we would chose for ourselves. Good gifts.

The interesting thing about one of these gifts was the explanation that came with it. To paraphrase: "Giving is good. We chose this charity that does this. We hope you like that." Then: "The Lord Christ is risen." It is interesting, in part, because it was the only religious sentiment passed out with the gifts. Everyone who received one of the donations received the religion with it, but no one else did.

I find myself wondering what that means about how the givers feel about different types of gifts. Are charitable gifts not "real" gifts, so that they need to be justified with religion? Are they gifts more true to the spirit of the givers' religion, thus earning the phrase? If so, the contrast between that and other gifts points up the contradictions of the holiday in ways that I, an unbeliever, could never hope to accomplish.

I don't know what the answer is, or even whether it's something as trivial as these gifts being the only ones with any kind of written sentiment attached (I don't know whether they were), but the phrase felt enough out of place there to make me think.

The Lord Is Good to Me
For large occasions, this family gathers into a circle and holds hands to sing the Johnny Appleseed song as grace. This is amusing for a number of reasons. Appleseed got most of his seeds from cider companies, and his trees produced cider apples, so what he spread was a convenient source of fermentable sugar. He was a Swedenborgian, which is still tiny and generally considered heretical by more mainstream religious factions. Also, it was hugely fun getting the kids to hold hands with me when they were still young enough to believe in girl cooties.

This year, however, I smiled for a different reason. I happened to be standing in exactly the right place in the circle to notice that one of the kids wasn't singing, at least to start with. He chimed in once he was clearly the only person not singing (the atheists in the room like singing and just skip the "amen"), but he had the guts to start out alone and against tradition. It gives me a bit more hope for this next generation, who are off to be educated at secular institutions far away from their parents.

It's always so nice to get even a small victory in this war I'm not bothering to fight.

December 27, 2010

Discriminating Against the Discriminating

It isn't terribly hard to find Christians who claim to be persecuted for their beliefs. It's particularly easy this time of year, when people are told that the inclusive wishing of "Happy Holidays" is somehow an affront. Forget that one's religious beliefs aren't and shouldn't be assumed to be somehow visible in a casual encounter or that "Merry Christmas" is grossly inappropriate to many, where "Happy Holidays" welcomes essentially everyone. They're told they've been insulted, and they believe it.

Now, however, via Skepchick, we find a group of Christians who have lost substantially more than their holiday cheer over their religious beliefs. Or at least, they've lost over some kind of belief. Let's see what they lost and why.

But in 2006, after he qualified as a psychosexual therapist, he told his employers that he did not feel able to give sex therapy advice to homosexuals.

A Christian bed and breakfast owner was threatened with legal action for turning away a homosexual couple in March 2010.

Dr Sheila Matthews, a Christian doctor, was told she would be removed from a council's adoption panel because she refuses to recommend cases involving homosexual couples.

Shirley Chaplin, a 54-year-old grandmother, was taken off wards and moved to a desk job after refusing to remove the crucifix that hangs around her neck. In April 2010 she was told by an employment tribunal that wearing the cross raised health and safety concerns and was not a "mandatory requirement" of the Christian faith.

Right. We have one person who thinks her display of public piety is more important than patient health despite anything written in Matthew and three people who think an injunction from the Old Testament is more vitally Christian than the New Testament's pervasive call to service for the most vulnerable among us.

That, right there, is the problem with allowing "religious" belief some kind of ascendency over the standards of our public life. As Voltaire said, "If God has made us in his image, we have returned the favor." These beliefs may be closely held, but they are not religious in nature.

I live in a city with a relatively long history of acceptance of homosexuality. Churches here--of most denominations--largely reflect that acceptance. Those that don't belong to communities that are not traditionally as accepting. The churches simply codify existing prejudices and values, with the "religious beliefs" of each denomination being shaped by the community rather than the other way around.

Of course, individual's beliefs are supported and reinforced by their membership in these religious communities. However, when they are not, people generally do one of two things. They convert to a sect that supports their personal beliefs, or they ignore the teachings of their sect in favor of their own preferences (as with the quarter of Catholics who do not believe in transubstantiation or the majority of Protestants who do). This suggests again that labeling beliefs as "religious" and privileging them as such is a problematic practice. Is a belief religious if your religion doesn't support that belief?

Then we have the fact that there are any number of religious beliefs we collectively refuse to recognize. Banks do not recognize the loan forgiveness of Shmita. We do not kill people for adultery (or consensual extramarital sex). Parents whose children suffer or die because of reliance on faith healing are prosecuted. We allow manufacturers to produce wool-linen blends.

In other words, we legally recognize interests that override an individual's ability to impose their religious beliefs on others. Going back to our sample discriminatees, the interests of hospital patients in maintaining a sterile treatment environment are obvious. I would hope that the interests of sexual minorities in equal treatment would be equally obvious, but I know that there are those who suggest that it hurts nothing for those minorities to receive their services from someone else.

There are two problems with this reasoning. The first is that requiring sexual minorities to shop around to find someone who will serve them is not equal treatment. It places additional burdens on them that others are not required to shoulder. The second is that while the religious do have the right not to serve in a way that contradicts their religious beliefs, they do not have a right to a service job if they cannot or will not serve.

This isn't merely in the interest of those who are protected from discrimination. It's in the interest of our society as a whole that we all have a recognized right to equal treatment, equal rights and responsibilities, that can't be taken from us at the whim of anyone who finds a community or sect that reinforces their prejudices. After all, there isn't a form of discrimination or brutality that hasn't found (or had made) some religious reasoning that makes it all acceptable.

That those in this article can't see that they're being held to the same standards as everyone else and being offered the same protections is far more a testament to the fact that their rights haven't been in question than it is any indication of persecution.

December 24, 2010

Not So Very Little

The worst version of "The Little Drummer Boy" I've heard was playing in a pizza parlor on Christian radio. It was a duet, male and female, with mismatched vibrato in their voices. The arrangement was basically New Age, country, soft jazz, and I think they'd reworked the lyrics to make them more Christian.

Yes, it really was that bad. I also heard it this year, which makes me extra happy that this version came along now. This is highly nontraditional and definitely not safe for many workplaces, so it's tucked below the fold.


Little Taiko Boy

Continue reading...

December 23, 2010

Grandma Cookies

It's the time of year when almost everything else takes a backseat to cookie making. As I've mentioned before, most of the gifts we give are charitable donations, with cookies to sweeten the deal for the recipients. That's a lot of baking in a short period of time, particularly if I've compressed my holidays by taking a week-long trip in the middle of them, as I did this year.

What am I making this year? Nothing too fancy; I go for variety of flavor over shapes, making at most one "presentation" cookie in a year. There are a couple of trusted standbys: almond sugar cookies and pecan sandies that Ben makes. There are the tweaked classics: Kiss cookies with a coffee cookie and dark-chocolate Kisses, crispy rice bars with chopped pistachios and dried cherries mixed in ('Cause they're green and red. Get it? Oh, never mind.). There's the untried recipe: "Pumpkin cookies with orange icing? Huh. Sure."

Always, however, are the grandma cookies. I'm sure they had a name at one point, but when I copied down my father's mother's recipe, I didn't keep it. I've never seen anyone else make them, so they've stayed named after her. They're a cake-like cookie, with a smooth texture and a mild but rich flavor due to the Dutch-process cocoa.

A few things to know if you're thinking about making the cookies. This produces a stiff, sticky dough that has to be refrigerated overnight before baking. It's too much for me to stir together by hand, and it makes my Kitchen Aid whiny. Admittedly, it's an older stand mixer, but I wouldn't want to try this with beaters either. Nor can I use my dishers to portion the dough for baking. The sweep comes off the track.

Natural cocoa will not give you the same flavor. If you can't get Droste at your local market, consider ordering from someplace like Penzey's (gotta love cocoa powder that is labeled "high fat"). Also, this uses a lot of dishes. Be prepared to take up counter space.

Wet ingredients:
12 oz. cottage cheese
1 c. butter (2 sticks, 1/2 lb.)
2-1/2 c. sugar
3 eggs

Dry ingredients:
4-1/8 c. all-purpose flour
3/4 c. Dutch-process cocoa
1-1/2 t. baking powder
3/4 t. salt

1-1/2 c. chunks (good chocolate chips, toasted nuts, chopped dried fruits that play well with chocolate)

Powdered sugar for coating cookies (about 1 cup).

Pull the butter and eggs out of the refrigerator and allow to come to room temperature. In the meantime, whisk together the dry ingredients in a bowl and set it aside.

Dump the cottage cheese into a sifter and work it through the holes into the mixer bowl using the back and edge of a table spoon. Add the butter. When that is roughly mixed, add sugar and mix until the texture is smooth (sugar will still be visibly granulated). Incorporate eggs one at a time.

Slowly add the dry ingredients. Expect to clean cocoa off all the nearby surfaces when you're done, but working in small amounts will help. When the dough is a consistent texture, add the chunks at once. Stop mixing as soon as they're incorporated.

Refrigerate overnight.

Preheat oven to 350F with racks just above and below center.

Roll dough into 1-inch balls. I use nitrile gloves, as the dough really is that sticky. Roll the balls in powdered sugar to coat. Space about 1-1/2 inches apart on a cookie sheet covered in parchment paper. Bake for 15 minutes. May be moved to a cooling rack right away or cool on the pan briefly.

Makes about 7-1/2 dozen cookies.


December 17, 2010

Who's the Hero?

So you've seen that some guy with a grudge and a gun shot up a school board meeting before killing himself. If you haven't seen the video (and the standard macho posturing about how the guy had to be a horrid shot because he missed all the people and some dumbass blog commenters can hit a paper target while under no stress whatsoever), check out Greg's post on the event.

Checking out the news coverage, I was struck a bit oddly by all the articles referring to school security chief Mike Jones as a hero.

Don't get me wrong. The guy did his job and did it well from what's being reported. He held off firing his gun until the board members were in more danger from the hostage taker than they would be from his bullets flying around the room. He kept his head and his aim and managed to fire at another human being, which is (and should be) much harder than gun nuts generally give credit for. He lived up to his training and his responsibilities.

However, there is also Ginger Littleton:

Ginger Littleton took about 30 seconds to decide she was going to use her hand-me-down purse to try to knock a gun out of the hands of the man threatening her colleagues on Tuesday.

In the hours afterward, she'd concede it probably wasn't the best idea. But at the time, she worried she was the only person in position to stop a slaughter at the Bay District School Board meeting in Panama City, Florida.

So Littleton -- the one board member the gunman had released, because she was a woman -- re-entered the room, sneaked up from behind and swung.

This. This is heroism. Stopping and turning around to go back, totally unprepared, because you're the only person in a position to make a difference. Taking action despite the risks. Doing what you can because you must.

Yet Littleton is only rarely being touted as a hero, while Jones is everywhere. Sure, Jones is what we've been told a hero is. He is male and armed and was generally successful. One of those is a good thing generally, but it does not a hero make.

So why isn't Littleton being hailed as the hero she is?

December 15, 2010

Every Anime Opening Ever Made

Via my friend Jodyth. I don't watch a ton of anime, but I was impressed at how quickly other examples sprang to mind from what I do watch.

And one more from the same creator on a different topic.

I love these music choices.

December 14, 2010

Do These Social Skills Make My Ass Look Creepy?

A while ago, over at Skepchick, Elyse asked for suggestions for dealing with the "creepy dude factor" as a barrier to women's participation in skeptic and atheist events. A (thankfully small) number of guys asked whether their geeky lack of social skills or someone else's would be classed as part of that problem. I would love to be able to say that if you think to ask, then no, you're not part of the problem. But...

Yes, guys, sometimes your social skills are part of the problem. However, it isn't in the way that you think it is. It isn't because you're awkward or not sure how to manage your body language. It isn't because you don't say the same things everyone else is saying.

It's because you can't set aside being self-conscious long enough to notice that someone just asked for your help with something really damned important.

Still don't know what behavior I'm talking about, or Elyse was talking about? All you have to do is wait.

yeah… people I’ve never met before falling all over me trying to lay the charm and flattery on thick is CREEPY as hell. Far more creepy than some WoW geek. HOWEVER, if that WoW geek is making a lot of rape jokes, or describes his character’s latest exploits as “raping the shit out of other character” whatever, that is ALSO creepy as hell (apparently this may be common in many games?? I don’t play, I don’t know, but it’s not appropriate in a social meeting). Being condescending is also a super turn off and mostly just annoying, not necessarily creepy, but still likely to make me want to stay home next time.

Not that hard to understand. Neither is this.

The last time I played D&D, two male players spent the whole game having their characters attempt to rape my character, saying it was “in character” for them to do so.

And if the women explaining it isn't enough for you to understand creepy, just wait for the guys to show up and demonstrate.

i have no interest in learning about your likes and dislikes, i’d rather talk about the last speaker or an issue brought about by that weirdo woman who talked about female porn at TAM london, romanticizing sex at a public venue is sorta lame.

i mean honestly, what percentage of your sexual encounters, are filled with bouquet of flowers, rose pedals leading to the bedroom, champagne and caviar, cheesy music, constant wind to blow back each persons’ hair, and it going on for an hour?

this creepy guy comment brought to you by the committee for more relaxed attitude toward strangers and sponsored by the get over yourself foundation.

Once you stop looking at yourself for a few minutes, it becomes kinda obvious. But to get back to you, since that's your main concern, what's so creepy about the way you're behaving?

How do I put this? Well, think of it this way. When was the last time you had to tell the world that you didn't feel safe, that you were dealing with people who thought it was funny that you were scared, that you were dealing with people who thought they had a right to whatever they wanted from you?

Okay, there's a good chance you've never been in that position, but try to imagine it. Imagine that kind of insecurity, that kind of fear. Now imagine the risk involved in telling someone else how vulnerable you know you are.

Now imagine that person's response is "Huh. You don't think I'll have trouble making friends or getting a date because I don't know how to make small talk, do you?"

That's where you get creepy.

Look, guys. You don't need to know how to make small talk. You don't need to know how to make someone laugh. You do need to figure out how to listen to what someone says and understand that sometimes it's time to put aside your own concerns. It's really that simple.

December 13, 2010

Veganism and Virtue

I posted a link to this article a while ago on my Facebook profile, and it sparked an interesting discussion. Let's see whether that happens again here.

Many of you know that I have recently been struggling for the first time in my life with health problems. When I discovered that my problems were a direct result of my vegan diet I was devastated. 2 months ago, after learning the hard way that not everyone is capable of maintaining their health as a vegan, I made one of the most difficult decisions of my life and gave up veganism and returned to eating an omnivorous diet. My health immediately returned. This experience has been humbling, eye-opening, and profoundly transformative. To hear the whole story just keep reading…

I've been known to get into arguments with proselytizing vegans online for reasons that are made all too clear in this post. The typical scenario is that a vegan diet is sold as a great moral good because it contains no animals (read "no death") that is healthful because it is good. It isn't hard to find the absurdity in this position. After all, the diet that causes the least death in the world is a starvation diet, containing no food at all. However, despite the existence of those who claim to live on breath alone, we can all generally understand that, well, that diet would kill us.

Yet somewhere in between, proselytizing vegans don't recognize that morally good does not equal healthful. A vegan diet works for some people but not all. It's a less efficient diet, and not all of us absorb nutrients equally well, for a number of reasons.

The problem is that because veganism is viewed as a moral good, the inability to absorb all necessary nutrients from the diet, even with supplementation, is viewed as a moral failing. Read the post to see what the writer was subjected to when she discovered she couldn't live as a vegan.

Then keep reading to see her deconstruct the idea of the vegan diet as a moral good.

December 12, 2010

Twelve Months of Almost Diamonds

DrugMonkey is perpetuating a meme again. He does it so rarely, it stays fun to participate. This meme is simple: Post a link to your first(ish) blog post in each month along with the first sentence of the post. So here's a quick year in review.

January: I'm feeling like crap for a number of reasons, including complications of the surgery and a plain old cold, so I haven't been posting regularly, but this did catch my attention today.

February: Tired of Valentine's Day advertising?

March: Two blog anthologies made recent announcements I'd like to share.

April: We have a corner lot in the city, with plantings where a lot of people would have lawn, so lots of trash gets blown into our yard and stays for a while.

May: How do you build up a movement with destructive criticism?

June: "Because I said so" may be four of the most satisfying words in the English language.

July: Still in the middle of a couple of insanely busy weeks, but I'm enjoying them immensely, due in no small part to my honeymooning Canuckistanian friends.

August: Something interesting happened just the other day.

September: I'm delivering a guest lecture at a local community college this evening on religious skepticism.

October: Yesterday and today are the Nobel Conference at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN.

November: There's a certain irony in the conservatives saying that they're "taking back their country," because that's exactly what I intend to do tomorrow.

December: Let's just go through a few of the highlights since my last blog post, shall we?

December 11, 2010

The Edge and Beyond

Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint came out while I was in high school. I didn't read it then, although I rather wish I had. Although I loved it on reading it, it didn't immediately become my favorite book. It has, however, stayed in that place through to the present.

Why? Well, there are a few things. It is a plot-driven novel, by which I mean, not the usual, but that there are schemes and politics propelling the events of the books. It's all about the intersection of identity and social roles, with a subtle helping of what it means to be family. And it is a fantasy book that relies not one tiny bit on magic to tell its story.

If you haven't read, go find a copy. If you have read it (and The Privilege of the Sword), you can now find out the ending to Richard and Alec's story in "The Man with the Knives." Be warned. It is an ending. It is other things as well, but it is decidedly an ending.

And if someone hasn't already, you may still be able to get me a copy for Christmas.

December 10, 2010

Nothing to Hide

Do you know how many people were killed on the four hijacked flights on September 11, 2001? The answer is 266, including the 19 hijackers. Two months later, 260 people died when a single plane broke apart in the air due to pilot error. None of them were hijackers.

Yes, there were thousands on the ground who died. I am not forgetting them. I am very happy to report that the U.S. government and airlines quickly took measures to securely separate passengers from flight controls.

I'm also happy to say that the U.S. quickly took some measures to tighten up what was some of the industrialized world's sloppiest airport security. Before the hijackings, I was on a trip to Scotland that involved the transportation of large amounts of camera equipment and a lead-lined bag containing film. I thanked the security scanners in the Glasgow airport for being the only people who bothered to look in the bag to make sure it was film. Things were incredibly lax before the hijackings. They did not stay that way.

In the nine years that have followed the hijackings, how many people have died in terrorist attacks on planes with passengers screened by the TSA? Of the attacks that happened and failed, how many were not carried out by fanatics who were willing to die? Or to put the same question in terms of relevance today: How many of them were less motivated than your average drug mule, who won't be discovered by anything less than a cavity search?

The answer to that last question is important. That is the number of attacks that will be prevented by the new, highly invasive screening measures the TSA has recently implemented.

I don't know the answer to that question. Neither do you, but we can both make pretty good estimates. I'm going with zero. Your answer may be different, but it won't be wildly different. We have taken effective measures to increase our security since the hijackings. I don't see any way that this new measure can even incrementally increase our current level of airline security. This is pure security theater.

Anil Dash wrote a couple of weeks ago about the value of security theater. I recommend reading his post. If nothing else, he lays out the maximum value we obtain from measures like these. It is the value of an illusion, but it is a value. And given that we won't obtain any safety increases from allowing subjecting ourselves to this sort of search, it is the total value we will receive. Please keep that value fixed firmly in your mind as you keep reading.

I also have Fibromyalgia. There are points on my body that fire up an amazing amount of pain in response to the slightest pressure. I educate new lovers with brightly-colored disc bandages or stickers. Somehow I doubt the airport authorities will comply with the sticker game.

So… okay. I’ll just dodge the freak-out and the pain by sucking in my lumpy bits and walking through the scanner. I’m generally not shy with my body, I don’t travel often, and I’m not on a first-name basis with the x-ray/MRI tech at the local clinic, so there shouldn’t be an issue.

But wait! There’s more!

I have a genital piercing (a vertical clitoral-hood bar to be specific), and the horror stories have already begun circulating among the metallically-infused about pat-downs, hassles, and fucking strip-searches following these scans. Is it possible these stories are just stories? Urban legends for the new era? Sure. Does it matter to the lizard-brain nested in my head? Absofuckinglutely not.

I am a transexual man. Being “caught” by TSA as a person of transexual past could literally mean my death. Transgender people have the highest rate of hate-crime and the highest rate as murder victims in the USA.

I don’t fly. And I won’t at any point in the foreseeable future. I haven’t for several years due to the invasive screening I had in 2004 that left me with nightmares.

I am a rape survivor. And I know that if I am forced to have the kind of circle jerk that I’ve seen on video–where a bunch of TSA screeners surround me and one of them touches me in very private places–there is a real chance I’m going to freak out. Traveling is always very stressful, in part because I have visual processing issues and epilepsy (see above; i.e, fractured head). Add onto that reliving a painful part of my past–someone touching me and I have no ability to say “I don’t consent“–I am not a happy traveler.

I’m getting ready for a business trip right now. I’m on the job hunt too, since I’ll be laid off next May. I’m hoping to make some important connections with these meetings.

Am I worried that I won’t make a good impression on the bigwigs that I’m going to meet? Am I spending time crunching data to make a good impression when I present my TPS reports?

I’m freaking out about just getting on the fucking plane. That’s what I’m spending all my energy on. And that’s not right.

For my friend with a colostomy bag. For my sister with a partial breast reconstruction. For the oh-so-many other women who have been raped or molested.

There has to be a better way.

I'm completely with Bug Girl. There has to be a better, less-invasive way to make people feel a little better. More importantly, there has to be a way to do this that doesn't step all over--by design--those who have something real to worry about.

Yes, by design. We don't know where the next attack will come from. We don't know what it will look like. What we do know is that it will almost certainly look different than any previous attack. And what that means is that screeners have to look for the different. At least, they need to do that if they're going to do a proper job of things instead of assuming a terrorist has no creativity.

That means that anything a standard-issue government employee doesn't recognize or understand is cause for suspicion. Really, that's always been the case, but now there's a new twist. Instead of looking at our luggage, the TSA is looking at us. They're turning their attention from what we're carrying to what we are.

That is the unconscionable problem with this new scheme. Being different, under this scheme, is exactly what will get you treated with suspicion, with disdain, with aggression--treated like a terrorist. Being different. Having nothing you need to hide is an amazing privilege, and it is a very different thing than not being a threat.

Want to see who has that privilege? Take a look at Jay Rosen's list of people in the media who have decided that the appropriate response to everyone's concerns is to tell us to "grow up." The funny thing about that list is that these are the people who have so much privilege they've never needed to grow up. They've never had to figure out how to deal with the stigma and loss of opportunity that comes with being a sexual minority, surviving sexual assault, or presenting a visible disability. They live in a society where they've never needed to figure out how to love and desire despite being heaped with shame for the very shapes of their bodies. Their happy childhoods, at least in this respect, continue to this day, but they tell us to grow up.

They tell us that the costs are small (although they fail to note the lack of benefits from this new program), and they are--to them. They're being borne by others (who include, of course, the traditionally visible ethnic minorities). The quotes I listed above are from those describing their fears, but those fears are proving prescient.

I went through the body scan first," she said. "And after I went through the body scan, a bunch of officers came over, took my bags and basically put me in a private room and I had no idea what was going on.”

Alyssa is diabetic and wears a small wireless insulin pump, which was noticed in the body scan.

“I had a sweat suit on and had to lift parts of my sweat suit up and parts of my sweat suit down for them to check,” she said. “They basically patted me down in my private parts from head to toe."

“I was so upset. I tried to remain as calm as I could through this process. I was treated like a criminal and I was afraid anything I would have said or done maybe would not have allowed me to get back to Austin.”

She continued, "And after I was finally cleared to go to the gate, I just started crying. In my whole life I’ve never felt like such a victim before.”

The 3-year-breast cancer survivor agreed, but was then asked by two female Charlotte TSA agents to go to a private room for further screening, and they began what Ms Bossi described as an aggressive pat down.

She said they stopped when they got around to feeling her right breast - the one she had lost through her illness.

Ms Bossi said: 'She put her full hand on my breast and said, 'What is this?'. And I said, 'It's my prosthesis because I've had breast cancer.' And she said, 'Well, you'll need to show me that'.'

She was then apparently asked to remove the prosthetic breast from her bra and show it to the TSA agents.

I stood there, an American citizen, a mom traveling with a baby with special needs formula, sexually assaulted by a government official. I began shaking and felt completely violated, abused and assaulted by the TSA agent. I shook for several hours, and woke up the next day shaking.

Here is why I was sexually assaulted. She never told me the new body search policy. She never told me that she was going to touch my private parts. She never told me when or where she was going to touch me. She did not inform me that a private screening was available. She did not inform me of my rights that were a part of these new enhanced patdown procedures.

When I booked my ticket, I was given no information that the TSA had changed their wand and unintrusive patdown procedures to “enhanced” patdown procedures that involved the touching of all parts of your body, including breasts and vagina on women and testicles and penis on men. I was not informed by any signs on the front side of security about the new procedures. I had not seen any media coverage about the issue, so I had no idea that this was a new government sanctioned policy.

Another important piece in this story, the Dayton airport does not have the new body scanners. I was not given any other search options. It was enhanced patdown, or nothing. (And I would have opted for the body scanner, if I were going to be subject to a sexual assault.)

Read all too much more at ACLU's site.

This is why, as I go through airport security this morning (right about the time this posts), I won't be going through any scanner. It isn't because I have anything to hide. It's because I don't. It's because the invasive search can't really hurt me. I know what will happen. I don't have any medical equipment that can be dislodged or touch triggers or body shame.

What I do have is time and the right to demand that if someone wants to get that personal with me, they look me in the eyes. What I have is the willingness to talk to the TSA agent about what kind of job satisfaction they're feeling these days.

December 09, 2010

Now We're Just Haggling

The charges against Julian Assange were read out in a British court on Tuesday:

She said the first complainant, Miss A, said she was victim of "unlawful coercion" on the night of 14 August in Stockholm.

The court heard Assange is accused of using his body weight to hold her down in a sexual manner.

The second charge alleged Assange "sexually molested" Miss A by having sex with her without a condom when it was her "express wish" one should be used.

The third charge claimed Assange "deliberately molested" Miss A on 18 August "in a way designed to violate her sexual integrity".

The fourth charge accused Assange of having sex with a second woman, Miss W, on 17 August without a condom while she was asleep at her Stockholm home.

Yes, "charges" is the appropriate word, used in both the applicable British and EU policies around extradition. Despite this, we continue to see people who insist, due to ignorance or some even less savory mental process, that no one should use that word until those charges are filed somewhere in Sweden other than the extradition warrant.

With all the rules-lawyering I'm seeing around what rape is, I kind of expected that. What I didn't quite expect, maybe because it was so early in the morning, was this:

A careful reading of the charges...would cause some people to conclude that, with the exception of the last, this is an argument about contraceptive methods during a one-night stand which has now achieved an international judicial dimension.

The last, if it occurred, would be rape.

I pointed out that if consent is dependent on use of a particular type of contraception, and that contraception is not used, there is no consent and asked whether he (of course it's a he) would care to explain why that's not rape?

As I thought about it more, though, I realized that it reminded me of an old, ugly joke. I retell it here in its modern form.

Him: Would you please sleep with me? I'll shower and treat you well. I'll make sure you enjoy it too, and I'll wear a condom to protect you. What do you say?

Her: Sure, why not.

Him: Let's do it without the condom?

Her: What? No! What kind of idiot do you think I am?

Him: Well, we've already established that you're a slut. Now we're just haggling over how I get to use you.

I don't think I've heard a bit of apologetics over the charges, including those indulged in by Assange's Australian attorney, that didn't amount to that in the end. Sums up the whole attitude toward women's sexuality pretty well.

December 08, 2010

A Conversation About Wikileaks

Men attempting to smear the accusers in the Assange rape case are simply watching their governments attack Wikileaks, then taking out their frustration at their own helplessness on those whom they view to be more powerless than them. A phenomenon easily viewed in animals and children is made disgustingly visible in adults as well. Discuss.

December 07, 2010

Instant Popularity Polling

I've been enjoying myself watching the comments sections on Minneapolis Star Tribune articles about the recount in the Minnesota gubernatorial race. Normally, conservatives leave more comments, but liberals and conservatives have a fairly even hold on "like" and "dislike" ratings. Not so much at the moment. If the votes here determined the outcome of the election, there would no question of a recount.

Let's just say Republicans should be really happy that there's no statewide election for another couple of years. Nor are their cries of "voter fraud!!!" getting much play. I don't think it would be wise for our new Republican-dominated state legislature to try to make too much of this particular nonissue.

Still, far and away, this is my favorite comment on this article.


December 05, 2010

How Must She Behave to Have Been Raped?

I don't know whether the rape charges against Julian Assange are valid. I do know, however, that they are rape charges. It doesn't matter whether a woman consented to have sex with you. If she tells you to stop, and you don't stop, that is still sexual assault. I don't care how frustrating it is or whether you hate her for the rest of your life for it. Sex you have with someone without their permission is rape.

Let's say that again: Sex you have with someone without their permission is rape.

One more time just for clarity: Sex you have with someone without their permission is rape.

Does that tell me whether Assange did what he's accused of doing? Nope. I just don't know. And neither do you.

There is one more thing I do know, though. This guy shouldn't be allowed near a single traumatized rape victim, much less in a professional capacity, if he believes that the alleged victim's behavior tells us she wasn't raped. Here's his evidence:

I’ve spent much of my professional life as a psychiatrist helping women (and men) who are survivors of sexual violence. Rape is a hideous crime. Yet in Assange’s case his alleged victim – the gender equity officer at Uppsula University – chose to throw a party for her alleged assailant – after they’d had the sex that even Swedish prosecutors concede was consensual.

Even ignoring the fact that the way to characterize the sex as consensual is to claim that consent, once given, cannot be revoked for any reason (which I think we've dealt with above; let me know if I need to repeat myself again), this is bullshit and he should know it's bullshit. There isn't one damned thing that all rape victims do or don't do in common. They don't all get scared. They don't all get angry. They don't even all show that they're upset.

What did I do when I was sexually assaulted? I went on with my plans for the evening, which were to lose my virginity. Yep, that's right. Within hours of being sexually assaulted, I had consensual sex.

Why? Hell if I know that either. I do know it doesn't make any sense, but that's because I wasn't rational. I'll remind you that I'd just been assaulted (and suffered another type of betrayal right alongside it). I had no idea what to do. I did the easiest thing, which was to go along as though it hadn't happened. Pretending didn't make it go away, but it was so much simpler than figuring out how to behave in a changed world.

If Assange did rape the alleged victim, why did she behave as she did? Maybe she was in denial. Maybe she wanted to show herself she could be that strong. Maybe she was reasserting her claim to the world they both shared. Maybe she was even pissed that Assange took control from her but not particularly traumatized. I don't know and neither do you.

Neither does Kirk James Murphy, M.D., but that didn't stop him from weighing in on the matter in a professional capacity (something he really ought to stop to give some serious thought). It didn't stop him from perpetuating rape myths. Hell, it didn't even stop him from writing a post that is one long exercise in "bad girls can't be raped."

Who is Julian Assange’s chief accuser in Sweden? She’s a gender equity officer at Uppsula University – who chose to associate with a US funded group openly supported by a convicted terrorist and mass murderer. She just happens to have her work published by a very well funded group connected with Union Liberal Cubana – whose leader, Carlos Alberto Montaner, in turn just happened to pop up on right wing Colombian TV a few hours after the right-wing coup in Honduras. Where he joined the leader of the failed coup in Ecuador to savage Correa, the target of the coup. Montnaner also just happened to vociferously support the violent coup in Honduras, and chose to show up to sing the praises of the Honduran junta.

Well, after all that, I guess the matter's closed. Except I still have one little question. What the fuck has that got to do with anything? Oh, wait. He explains.

Small world, isn’t it? Julian Assange is the human face of Wikileaks – the organization that’s enabled whistle-blowers to reveal hideous war crimes and expose much of America’s foreign policy to the world.

He just happens to meet a Swedish woman who just happens to have been publishing her work in a well-funded anti-Castro group that just happens to have links with a group led by a man at least one journalist describes as an agent of the CIA: the violent secret arm of America’s foreign policy.

And she just happens to have been expelled from Cuba, which just happens to be the global symbol of successful defiance of American foreign policy.

And – despite her work in Sweden upholding the human right of gender equity – in Cuba she just happens to end up associating with a group openly supported by an admitted CIA agent who himself committed mass murder when he actively participated in the terrorist bombing of a jetliner carrying a Cuban sports team…an act that was of a piece with America’s secret foreign policy of violent attacks against Cuban state interests.

Yeah...nope. Not even an accusation that a CIA agent put her up to anything--or that they ever met. Or maybe it was supposed to be the terrorists who wanted Assange arrested. Keeping state secrets hidden is right up their alley, right? Or was it supposed to be the feminists? I can't figure out why else her job merits multiple mentions in a smear piece, and that's all this amounts to.

Call me back when you've got something other than your dislike of this woman's politics or her party planning. In the meantime, I'll be figuring out whether this particular post reaches the level of unprofessionalism that merits lodging complaints with the appropriate oversight board.

December 04, 2010

Nonapologies, Whatever Edition

I'm guessing you're aware of the concept of the nonapology, the thing that is phrased as an apology, often even contain the words "I'm sorry," and expresses an utter lack of responsibility for any actions. "I'm sorry if you were offended." "I'm sorry you feel that way about it." I heard a new one today.

"I'm sorry for whatever happened between us."

Really? You're sorry for...whatever? You don't know what happened because, frankly, I haven't bothered to tell you, but you're sorry?

No, I don't think so. If you were sorry about what happened between us, you'd at least want to know what part you played in it. What you're sorry about is my reaction only. You're sorry I don't want to hang out. Sorry I don't want to talk. Not sorry enough to find out why. Not sorry enough to find out whether it's fixable. Just kind of...well...sorry.

Tells the whole story, really.

December 03, 2010

Things You May Not Know About Wikileaks

More specifically, this post is things you may not have picked up from the general reporting over Wikileaks release of U.S. diplomatic correspondence.

From the NY Times explanation of their decision to post material related to the correspondence and their later elaboration in response to reader questions (and condemnations):
  • The U.S. government did have the opportunity to review this material and make a case that parts of it shouldn't be shared. Where there was a disagreement between the Times and the government, the Times made a decision about what to share.
  • This information is part of the larger trove of information believed to have been stolen by U.S. intelligence analyst Bradley Manning.
  • There are revelations within the correspondence, but it largely has to do with how sausage is made. That is, there are few Earth-shattering pieces of news, but the material provides a look into the interior of U.S. diplomacy that many may not enjoy.
From the Times explanation of the Swedish charges against Assange:
  • Assange has been charged with failing to stop sex with two women after condoms came off or broke, despite requests of the women. This differs from statements made by the Australian attorney who represented Wikileak's Assange in the sex-crimes charges (whose teeth I'd like to kick in after reading this post) in the important detail that Assange is alleged to have continued having sex despite consent being clearly revoked.
From an interview with Ethan Zuckerman on Amazon's dropping Wikileaks as a customer:
  • The legal situation regarding a hosting company's responsibilities for material hosted on their site is not clear.
  • Nonetheless, Amazon was not hosting any of the correspondence. They were hosting a list of pointers to the files on torrent sites. Yes, they're not just for piracy anymore.
  • This makes it unclear whether Wikileaks violated Amazon's terms of service, as Amazon claims, by posting information they didn't have a right to post.
  • Amazon did not violate anyone's First Amendment rights. It's possible that the government did, but that would require Amazon to have waited to get a notice from the government before taking material down.
  • You're not necessarily in any better position with your hosts if you post anything online than Wikileaks was.

December 02, 2010

Experiment IV

I read about Republicans getting stupid over NSF grants and shook my head. I'd prefer to not believe it, but....

Then I read that one of these grants studied sounds for video games, and I sat up. Sure, I thought. Sure that's what they're studying. Uh, huh.

Experiment IV

We won't be there to be blamed.
We won't be there to snitch.

No, I know better.

December 01, 2010


Oh. Hi.

Let's just go through a few of the highlights since my last blog post, shall we? Let's start with that day.

  • Having spent the last three weeks in the middle of fall housecleaning, the past two while our main staircase is being finished, I have about an hour's more work to do before I start my planned pre-Thanksgiving days of relaxation.
  • My mother calls. My grandfather is in the hospital with pneumonia. The nurse isn't telling her to go visit him right at that moment, but...well, he is 96.
  • I get in about 20 minutes of work before my mother calls again. My brother, who spent the night at our place on Thursday on his way out of town needs a place to stay again that night. He, of course, didn't mention this on Thursday so I could have planned.
  • I get in about another 10 minutes of work before my husband comes upstairs. He's just talked to the roommate, who is supposed to be moving out by the end of November. The roommate has just announced that he's staying through December. Announced.
  • I discover through non-standard means (i.e., not via the roommate) that his girlfriend is staying all week (through Thanksgiving), not just for the weekend.
  • After finishing my cleaning and giving up on the day, I come out of seclusion to discover that the washing machine has exploded, or at least sounds like it. I, of course, have left the laundry out of my cleaning equation, since I usually manage it in the mornings and evenings around work. I identify one pair of clean, work-friendly pants.
  • I go back into seclusion.
  • The attempt to get the washer repaired does not go well.
  • I work 10-1/2 hours, with multiple deadlines hanging over my head.
  • Once I've made it home, I bake the very large batch of banana bread that will use up all the bananas we pulled out of the freezer before all hell broke loose.
  • While the banana bread is baking, I hand wash a load of work clothes in water approximately the temperature of the snow on the ground outside.
  • While I'm at work, my mother calls to let me know my brother had just been arrested. No, really. Oh, and I should make another dish for Thanksgiving, since he won't be bringing his contribution.
  • I put in another 10+ hour day of racing against deadlines.
  • I don't remember much else of the day. I can't guarantee that's a good sign. Oh, wait. I got a margarita...on the second try, but it was on the way to shopping for washing machines.
  • My mother calls again. I answer, "Now what?" Just another change of plans. They don't want to keep my brother over the holidays after all.
  • I give up on work early.
  • While I'm washing cranberries in preparation for making relish, the roommate and girlfriend are eating their lunch, thus slightly decreasing the amount of leftovers they had taking up space in the fridge. Then the roommate asks whether he can get into the sink to rinse out his dish. I point out that he doesn't need to do that if he's putting it in the dishwasher. Only after he's out of the kitchen do I realize he's put it in with the load of clean dishes.
  • Later, the roommate sends me a text message, from within the house, to ask whether it's okay to use the oven. When I say it is as long as it happens soon, he tells me that's okay...since he started preheating it before asking.
  • Once again, I remember very little of the day.
  • Ah, Thanksgiving. Prep is to start early. However, the roommate and girlfriend manage to be using both the stove and the shower. I get no bacon with my breakfast, and the turkey starts late.
  • Cooking goes fairly smoothly...except for the borosilicate pan that explodes in the oven.
  • The roommate and girlfriend leave five minutes after the first guests arrive and get back fifteen minutes before the last guests leave, thus ensuring that we are not alone once during the day.
  • Otherwise? Not so bad. Having family over is literally the simplest part of the week.
Yeah, I'm still working on resting and recuperating. The fact that the washer that was supposed to be delivered today not only didn't show up but also exists in an order status that no one's ever heard of doesn't exactly help, but at least I'm mostly caught up at work. Oy.

November 21, 2010

Speaking Out

Unless you speak up and tell the world that gays, lesbians and other sexual and gender minorities are due the same protection of their human rights under the law that the rest of us have, this is what you're supporting.

United Nations -- African and Arab nations succeeded by a whisker in deleting three words from a resolution that would have included gays in a denunciation of arbitrary killings. Europeans protested in vain.


The reference in the three-page draft came in the sixth of 22 paragraphs and urged investigations of all killings "committed for any discriminatory reason, including sexual orientation." The provision was among many that had been proposed and analyzed by a "special rapporteur" (investigator) on the subject.

Benin, the chair of the African group of nations, proposed the amendment and Morocco, on behalf of the Islamic Conference, argued that there was no foundation for gays in international human rights instruments as there was in cases of race, gender and religious discrimination.

Whether by your voice, your vote, or your silence, you lend support to the idea that it's okay to kill gays. Sometimes it really is just that simple.

"Oh, but wait," I hear, "I don't support killing anyone. I just don't want them to get married."

That doesn't matter. These people, they understand that you're weak, that you don't like getting your hands dirty, that you settle for marginalizing "them" and their relationships. They think less of you for it, sure, but they're still happy to do your work for you. After all, you and them? You're on the same page.

That's what you've told them.

November 18, 2010

The Telephone Game

If you get the opportunity to see The Telephone Game, do it. This will be more difficult if you're not in the Twin Cities, but more worthwhile if you've ever done theater, particularly experimental theater, or like your movies slightly odd.

I just got back from the premier. I went without great expectations, knowing this was a local, low-budget production. Not that you can't do great things on a budget, but that usually means attracting the cast you know rather than the cast you can afford. Ben and I were there so he could take a few pictures. It turns out he's also taken pictures of approximately half the cast, but that's a bit beside the point.

The Telephone Game tells the story of the production of a play, from auditions to opening night. It also follows the relationship of the playwright, Marco, who insists on directing and starring in his own production, and the leading actress, Zelphia, who understands the core of the play better than Marco does. Both storylines are greatly complicated by the fact that Marco is the least coherent individual on the face of the planet. Far less coherent even than a politician with the last name of Bush.

Despite that, he seems to have written a delightfully evocative play, and we're given enough of a glimpse at it up front to be concerned when Marco's doubts cause him to start messing his production. What actually happens to the play over the course of the movie is something I won't spoil by describing it.

The cast of the movie was much better than I had expected going in. Haley Chamberlain was stunning as the female lead, both as the actress and in her role in the play. The movie would be worth watching for her alone. However, nobody fell to the level of "strictly local talent" that I expected in a movie this low budget.

That might have something to do with the fact that the script was improvised. There was, at most, one character in the movie underserved by her writer. The rest all stood out as individuals. And you really have to admire a movie that can work in a line like "Then I puked a projection of Peter Piper's pickled peppers onto the poor percussionists in the pit. That's why I don't act," and not have it completely derail the scene.

Beyond that, I find myself unwilling to describe the movie. I went into it without any good idea of what I was going to see, and that served me well. However, if you're not ready to take my word that the movie is worthwhile, you can always watch the trailer below. But really, just see the movie.

November 15, 2010

More on Maddow and Stewart

Since interviews of Jon Stewart are rare, they tend to get passed along quickly. I assume most of the people who want to have seen Rachel Maddow's interview with Stewart on what he was attempting to do with the Rally to Restore Sanity. If you haven't seen it, I recommend the unedited version--long but worthwhile.

The interview is in many ways a discussion between geeks more than anything else. As such, it requires a certain amount of background to understand. Since the interview is about media, who better to give you that background than Pressthink's Jay Rosen. Enjoy.

November 11, 2010

Serving Those Who Serve Us

I don't usually reprint the emails I get from political figures. Today, for Veterans Day, I'm making an exception. I can't really say it better than this.

Veterans Day provides us with the chance to mark the debt of honor we owe to all those who have worn the uniform of the United States. We remember those who gave their lives beneath our flag, in service of our freedom.

And with so many still fighting, we owe special thanks to the courageous families of those who serve.

Because when our servicemen and women deploy overseas, their loved ones are left to undertake heroic battles of their own at home. The unique challenges they face in support of men and women in uniform allow us all to enjoy the freedoms of our democracy.

Every time I have a chance to meet with these families, I'm struck by their strength and their quiet dignity -- they are truly some of the most selfless, courageous people I've met.

And today is also a day to acknowledge the sacrifices these brave men and women make every day, and pray for the safe return of those they love.

I've felt their calling personally, and I want to encourage Americans across the country to step up and do more for our military families. Take the time to stay informed about the concerns and activities of the families of service members in your community. Let them know you recognize their struggles and appreciate all they do.

You can help by finding out the needs of the military families in your community and volunteering, from working with your local school's PTA to hiring a military spouse.

Today and every day, I am moved by the personal sacrifices made by service families. And I'm humbled by the patriotism of those they support -- our soldiers and airmen, our sailors and Marines.

Today, if you can, please take a moment to offer your gratitude for the families of the veterans and active service members that you know. Or go online to to find out how you can serve military families in your area.



I will add to what the First Lady had to say, though. Volunteer opportunities are good. Opportunities to donate are good. I'll plug one of my favorites a little later. Neither of these, however, is enough. These things only go on as long as we're paying attention, and as a society, we do a really crappy job of paying attention, particularly when the subject is something as bleak as war or as guilt-inducing as the sacrifices of others that we don't share.

That is why we need to collectively shoulder the responsibility of taking care of our veterans. That is why it pisses me off that Senator Kent Conrad invoked the sacrifices of veterans in endorsing a set of deficit-reduction measures that would raise the fees these same veterans pay for service from the Veterans Administration.

But you know today is Veterans’ Day. You think of what they sacrificed for this country. If some of us have to sacrifice a political career to get this country back on track then so be it. It has to be done.

It's nice that Senator Conrad is only a little concerned with his career. Really nifty. However, he's missing the point. His political career isn't the issue. The issue is that, for the past eight years, our service members have carried the burden of two wars that the majority of us agreed were a good thing. What have they done that we haven't?
  • They have endured separation from their loved ones, and their families have stepped in to make day-to-day life go on without them, despite the stress of knowing what it might mean every time the doorbell rings.
  • They have lived with the risks, day in and day out, that we've done such a good job not thinking about.
  • They have been killed, and they have killed. In our names, so that we haven't had to.
  • Despite our military technological marvels, they have sustained a rate of major limb injuries similar to veterans of the Vietnam War.
  • They have sustained a much higher incidence of brain injuries than the veterans of previous wars, without the care those injuries require.
  • They have suffered from PTSD and high rates of suicide, also without receiving the care they are due (ZenMonkey offers some specifics on how you can help with this problem).
How about you? What have you done? Have you at least contacted your senators and representative in the House to tell them what to do with the VA proposal from the Deficit Commission? If not (and you live in the U.S.), please do that now. Not having to make additional sacrifices for their health is the least we owe our veterans. The very least.

While you're sending an email (it's so very easy these days), remind them that you consider the well-being of those who serve us to be a much higher priority than giving more to those who already have plenty. Talk to them about how you feel about the ongoing wars, as well. Tell them that our military members and family are important to you--both today and when you go to vote.

Also, please consider one more thing. Many of you celebrate Christmas or have family who do. This is traditionally a major indulgence holiday, a celebration of consumerism. It doesn't have to be. If you're one of those people who is hard to shop for, ask for a donation to be made to an organization that helps veterans, service members, and their families instead.

You can also do what we do, and give donations to others. For the past several years, much of our extended family has received donations to Fisher House, along with some homemade baked goodies, as their presents. It not only takes some of the money that would otherwise be spent on, say, another sweater and sends it where it can do real good, but it also puts military charities in front of those who might be looking to make last minute donations before the tax year ends. And it reminds everyone of the fighting going on in our names.

But whatever you do, however much or little you can, please take the opportunity today to figure out how you can help those who have sacrificed for you.

November 10, 2010

A Difference of Opinion

My friend Kelly doesn't often go off on a rant, or at least he doesn't usually write them down. But when he does? Stand back.

One of the things that we as a genre community seem to be most vulnerable to is the idea that our personal favorite type of writing is the only type of writing that other people should love and pay attention to, and that anyone who disagrees that our pet subgenre is the one true form of worthwhile writing is a poo-poo head. This tends to be expressed in one of two ways:

1) I want more of my stuff, and why isn't everyone writing and publishing that? "Waaaaah!" *POUT* It is often accompanied by the stomping of rhetorical feet and tearing of hair. It mostly looks like highly articulate toddlers throwing a tantrum because the world isn't treating them and their pet interests as the center of the universe.

2) How can anyone believe that XXXXX is worthy of their attention and dollars? XXXXX is immoral and anti-intellectual or just plain bad. The people who read/write it are dupes/exploiters or simply uncultured. If people really understood the underlying dynamic of XXXXX they'd realize that and come over and read YYYYY which is the one true way. It mostly looks like even more articulate toddlers throwing a tantrum because the world isn't treating them and their pet interests as the center of the universe.

There's a whole bunch more, and the whole thing is thoughtful, well-reasoned, and delivered with a very entertaining 2-by-4. Go read.

November 09, 2010

Little Conversations

Ugh. No time for a proper blog post, probably not for a couple of days (although I've been wrong about these things before). Apropos of that, enjoy.

Little Conversations

You know I never could say anything in twenty words or less.

November 07, 2010

HPV and the Bigots of AVN

Jane J Kim, PhD, an assistant professor of health decision science in the department of health policy and management at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, constructed models to assess the cost-effectiveness of the HPV shot across a range of potential scenarios involving men who have sex with men. The scenarios were based on age, previous exposure to the types of warts that are targeted by the vaccine, and HIV status. Men who test positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, are at higher risk for HPV and anal cancer.

Researchers used measurements called “QALY.” QALY -- which stands for “quality adjusted life year” -- is a measurement of both quality and length of life. In the study, a cost-effectiveness ratio of less than $50,000 per QALY gained is considered a "good value for money."

Vaccinating men who have sex with other men against HPV between the ages of 12 to 26 is a cost-effective strategy, Kim concludes. If further study shows that this vaccine is also effective against HPV-related cancers it may be an even more cost-effective intervention.

This is pretty awesome news. There are still issues to be worked out, of course, particularly in terms of how we get the vaccine to the people most likely to benefit from it. The issue of how people identify sexually versus how they behave sexually, particularly at the ages at which the vaccine will be most effective, will require some decisions to be made about how broadly to cast the vaccination net.

Still, we have an opportunity to help a population that already suffers a disproportionate burden of disease. We can even offer them passive protection up front, when it is most likely to be effective.

Of course, that's not how the Anti-Vaccination Nitwits (yes, I know it's Australian Vaccination Network) sees the issue. From their Facebook page:

Yes, they really did say that young male homosexuals (they left out bisexuals entirely)--and by young, I mean teenagers and very young adults--have a bunch of disposable income. Not only did they indulge in rank stereotyping of gay men, but they completely ignored the truly ugly situation faced by young homosexuals. Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Australia is completely civilized in how gay and lesbian teens are treated.


Is it any wonder that the first response to their post was the comment below (removed after six hours on a thoroughly moderated page, according to Reasonable Hank, but captured by StopAVN and brought to my attention by Bob Apthorpe)?

I'm not sure why they bothered to take it down, actually, since it says the same thing the AVN itself said.

Sadly, this stance is entirely in line with what the AVN has previously had to say in an article on HPV vaccines.

This vaccine aims to protect people from a virus that is basically only transmitted when a person engages in what amounts to optional behaviour. HPV is not a public health threat in the same way, say, polio or measles are.

Did I get HPV through having sex? Yes. But it seems a bit odd to refer to something that half of all Australian teenagers have done before leaving high school as "optional behaviour." It's the most pointless of technicalities. Still, that usually how the AVN gets their victim blaming in, if this article is any indication.

Most women who develop invasive cervical cancers have not had regular Pap smears. So to say that because 1,000 women in the U.K. die of cervical cancer every year, and there is thus an urgent public-health need to vaccinate every adolescent girl--without mentioning that many if not most of these women did not have regular screenings--is somewhat disingenuous.

Because heart disease, lung cancer, diabetes, emphysema, and everything else that has a partial cause in human choices is not actually any kind of public health issue. Again, right.

I guess the only thing to do now is to wait for actual vaccination recommendations to be made. In the meantime, we can all "amuse" ourselves laying bets on how the AVN will react to the news. Will it be clueless stereotyping, ignorance of human behavior, or a combination of the three?

November 05, 2010

Droit de Seigneur

As others have pointed out, child sexual abuse is not a problem exclusive to religion. Plenty of organizations in which adults have authority over children contain predators. What is unique to churches, however, is the degree of authority priests and pastors have over the adults who would normally protect these children. It's a power they used to share with nobility, but today, with the exception of certain legal establishments that we recognize as corrupt, it's theirs alone.

A new case out today in our local paper illustrates the problem:

The 13-year-old's mother told police that she noticed several phone calls on her daughter's cell phone from the pastor months ago. The woman took away the phone for a while, but didn't speak to her daughter about the situation.

It is possible that the woman would be as hesitant to follow up if the adult in the situation were a school teacher or a sports coach, but is it likely? How about the others who discovered the situation?

Church staff members confronted Ramirez-Toxtle and he admitted the child's allegations, but said he never had sex with her, the complaint said. "He was given a letter reprimanding his behavior, and police obtained a copy of this letter," the complaint said.

The church staff knew about the problem. What did they do? They complained to the authority they recognized: the perpetrator of the abuse. They impotently shook their collective fingers at him instead of submitting him to the appropriate authority in this situation.

I applaud the person who recognized that this wasn't enough, who took this matter to the police. As for the rest of them, if the fondling of a 13-year-old girl isn't enough to make them question the proper amount of authority to grant those who claim to speak for God, what will it take? What secular horrors will they submit to on that authority? More than that, what horrors will they allow to be inflicted on others before they act?

That is the evil that the authority of religion introduces into our society.

November 04, 2010


Oh. This. This is beautiful.

The result is the Twitter chatbot @AI_AGW. Its operation is fairly simple: Every five minutes, it searches twitter for several hundred set phrases that tend to correspond to any of the usual tired arguments about how global warming isn't happening or humans aren't responsible for it.

It then spits back at the twitterer who made that argument a canned response culled from a database of hundreds. The responses are matched to the argument in question -- tweets about how Neptune is warming just like the earth, for example, are met with the appropriate links to scientific sources explaining why that hardly constitutes evidence that the source of global warming on earth is a warming sun.

I need about six of these. I need the "race realist" bot, the "men are just smarter" bot, the gun nut bot, the anti-vax bot, the libertarian bot, and the evangelical/creationist bot. Then, once I don't have to keep repeating myself on those topics, I'll probably need about six more, since I'll have time again to spend on evaluating and formulating new sets of arguments.

Would it do any good? Looking for some kind of external metric, it's hard to say. I don't know that these kinds of arguments ever convince anyone. I do know, however, that they rarely change and their proponents are generally dogged. This means that chatbots like this can waste plenty of time that these people would otherwise spend trying to spread misinformation and information-free jingoism. That, in itself, would be worthwhile, as would freeing up more of the time of the people who currently go out of their way to combat this kind of nonsense.

So, who's in?

November 01, 2010

Taking Back My Country

There's a certain irony in the conservatives saying that they're "taking back their country," because that's exactly what I intend to do tomorrow. Oh, I don't mean it the way they mean it. I've never been rich or male, so this country was, at best, only partially mine to do with as I saw fit. No, when I say I'm voting tomorrow to take my country back, I mean something a bit different.

I'm voting to take it back from politicians who can't be bothered to learn the history of the country they're pledging to protect and serve or the documents on which it was founded. From grandstanders who don’t understand what freedoms were granted to us under the Constitution, much less the reasons why those particular freedoms needed to be explicitly laid out. From those who are so greedy for power over the rest of us that they can't comprehend how they too are protected by the status quo.

I'm voting to take it back from the corporations that have bought their way into our political process. From those who are required, under threat from shareholders, to try to steer that process toward short-term gains for them rather than toward long-term security and prosperity for us all. From those who violate the trust and values of their employees and customers. From those who think their ability to coddle their corporate buddies is more important than living up to the public trust they've been granted as utilities. From those who aren't competent to manage changes in our economy without government handouts and anti-competitive legislation.

I'm voting to take it back from the rich who are constantly whining that they won't make us more jobs unless we give them all that they ask for, despite the fact that they simply have very little control over the process. From those clueless enough that they can't handle additional investment capital without creating a market bubble. From those who are sniveling that they can't make ends meet if they have to pay for the benefits they've been given. From those who think that being willing to game the system to reward their own selfishness is a virtue that entitles them to a louder voice in our collective political process.

I'm voting to take it back from the ethical weaklings, whose own moral decision-making process is so out of their control that they want someone to control mine, too. From those who think laws will keep them from having the sex they already need to hide to stay in power. From those who manage their own relationships so poorly that they feel threatened by whom I and mine love and desire. From those who can't be bothered to figure out how to actually achieve the ends they claim to want. From those who value a scrap of tissue with rather poor chances over a human being in need.

I'm voting to take it back from a media that's inane and controlled by corporate interests. From those who think there is no inherent fairness to truth if truth favors one side of an argument. From those more interested in repeating a story than discovering what the story actually is. From those more interested in circuses than bread, much less meat. From those who treat a tiny minority as a major constituency. From those who rolled over and showed their bellies and still consider themselves guard dogs.

I'm voting to take it back from the "patriots" who advocate tearing our country apart because they lost an election. From those who want to secede. From those who think guns are okay at political events but signs on sticks aren't. From those who encourage the disgruntled to be "armed and dangerous." From those so scared of one amendment that they want to use another against it. From those who would decide who is a "real" citizen based on their own criteria.

I'm voting to take it back from the people who despise the job they're applying to do. From those who want to do nothing more than keep anything from being done. From those who are proud of their lack of accomplishments. From those who, no matter what kind of crises we face, are determined to make "Government is the problem, not the solution" a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I'm voting to take it back from the bought-and-paid-for. From those who are more concerned about those who pay for their advertising than for those who voted for them. From those who help the powerful victimize the individual. From those who shamelessly defend the indefensible.

I'm voting to take it back from the liars. From those who repeat the same lies over and over, not knowing or not caring what they're saying as long as it suits their ends. From those who deflect responsibility for their allies' scandals and their own behavior. From those who think truth is a matter of opinion. From those who deny expertise when it doesn't tell them what they want to hear.

I'm voting to take it back from the sheer crazies. From the 2%-ers. From the conspiracy theorists. From those calling for the start of the apocalypse. From those who would normally be given the side-eye but are somehow being treated as though they had some kind of valuable input. From those who waste our time when we could be accomplishing something.

Tomorrow, I'm voting to take my country back from a movement that's been in place for most of my lifetime. This movement has tried, and largely succeeded, in reversing the liberal policies that brought our country some of our most prosperous decades. It has fought tooth and nail against the progress we've made in treating all our citizens as human beings. I don't intend to let it get any further. I intend to stop it now.

Won't you join me in taking this country back for all of us?