Tuesday, March 18, 2014

I'm Going to Learn the Language of the Universe

One of the beautiful things about living in our time is the depth of human understanding and the pace of discovery.  If you are interested in the secrets of the universe, and I am, it is an exciting time to be alive.

I've experienced frustration on a number of recent occasions where a scientist or science enthusiast was talking about the implications of a discovery, such as the Higgs boson, or the recent measurement of gravitational waves, and I could only understand a small watered-down portion of what was really going on.

Here I am, living in a world where people unlock the secrets of the universe for me and report back, and I can't even appreciate the answer they've given me because I'm not fluent in the universe's language.  So I'm beginning a journey into math and physics.  Ultimately I want to have an enthusiast's comprehension of both quantum and cosmology, and I know that to really understand these things is to understand them with numbers.  So math first.

I don't know what the exact path forward will be.  I'm starting with my old Calculus text, and I'm going to try to go through a chapter a week.  If that's too much, I'll slow down.  When I'm done with that, I'll figure out what the next hop is.

This will probably take me 4 or 5 years.  I'll be 40 this year.  I figure by time I'm 45 I will at least have made myself aware enough to appreciate what we know, what the big questions are and why, and which frontiers are being pushed.  (And then, when Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres says "You can't do that!  something something Hamiltonian something something FTL signaling", I will have some idea why turning into a cat will break the universe.)

It would be nice to enjoy this journey with other minds, and my schedule doesn't really permit normal classes, so if anyone is interested in this kind of thing or knows of relevant online communities, that would be neat.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Anvil of Truth

If beliefs are swords, then Truth is an unbreakable sword.  How to tell which swords are unbreakable, and which are just swords?  We must repeatedly lay them down on the anvil and strike hard with any falsification that might break them. 

The ones that shatter were not Truth; this is obvious enough.  What some fail to see is the meaning of their own reluctance to put a cherished sword down on the anvil, and strike.  That is not Truth, it just a belief you are not ready to let go of.  To value Truth is to be prepared to acknowledge that you did not have it.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

WTC cross is part of the history of 9/11

American Atheists is opposing the inclusion of the WTC cross in the 9/11 Museum.  I do not agree with them on this. 

I think that the separation between church and state is extremely important, and I absolutely do not want the government endorsing any particular religious view.  I also think that this boundary is often stepped across by Christians who have not considered what it would be like to live in this country as a non-Christian.  Atheist organizations such as American Atheists are important in maintaining and re-asserting that boundary against religious encroachment, and law suits are an important tool for doing so.

But I don't like this one.  Separation of church and state does not mean that all mention of religion must be eradicated from public spheres.  The WTC cross is a piece of the history of 9/11.  It was a symbol of hope and faith for Christian responders as they sorted through the emotional and literal rubble of 9/11.  It is part of the story of how we responded, as a nation.  No doubt there were non-Christians among the responders who probably felt little affinity for the cross, and still others who probably participated in the on-site Christian ceremonies even though this wasn't their faith.  Some may have seen it as a symbol of how religion got us into this mess in the first place, but nonetheless it was there at ground zero and it mattered.

To say that this cross cannot go in the museum is to make invisible a part of the responders' story, and it is to do so only because that part of the story is religious.  That is not what separation of church and state means to me, and I don't think it means that legally, either.

It is important to me that the memorial and museum not seem to communicate that we are a Christian nation, or that Christianity occupies some superior position in our society, or that 9/11 was in some way an attack on Christianity rather than on America, or that this cross should represent all religious Americans or all Americans, or anything of that sort.  That would be overstepping; it would be a government endorsement of Christianity and/or an erasing of non-Christian Americans.  But the WTC cross represents, to me, that there were Christian responders who found this cross in the rubble, and then drew hope and comfort from it. That in a time when we were all asking ourselves what this all meant, some people felt that the symbolism and discovery of this cross was part of their answer. 

As long as the museum doesn't step over those bounds, that part of the story should be told, too.  I think this lawsuit is grotesquely insensitive.  I would prefer, in this case and in many others, to see the secular community looking to make sure that everyone feels included and represented rather than making sure that there is no mention of belief whatsoever.  As atheists/humanists we have our own perspective to share and represent. Death takes on a different character when you know that the dead are truly gone. There is no next journey or happier place, we can only celebrate our memories of the dead and what they meant to us in life.  Our brushes with death bring into sharp relief how precious this one life is, and the absence of other meaning emphasizes how important other human beings are to us.

Let us add the atheist/Humanist perspective, rather than subtracting the Christian one. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

I like the religious meaning of Christmas

Secular Christmas is kindof meh, honestly. It's basically Thanksgiving again plus obligatory present giving, horrendous traffic, and shopping crowds. I enjoy a good holiday with family, regardless, but I'm also worn out on the commercial themes that have been hanging around since literally before Halloween. I'm sure when I have kids there will be a renewed magic to it, because childlike wonder is infectious.

In contrast, the religious theme is potent and meaningful. It takes a little suspension of disbelief if you're not Christian, but this is true of all myths. I feel no need to disdain Prometheus or the River Styx simply because these things lack literal truth. In the Christian myth, our yearning for absolution is touched by grace and we are made whole again: unfractured, unscarred - a kind of healing that mere time cannot provide. Jesus is the physical manifestation, the personification of grace and forgiveness.

Forgiveness is necessary to sustain any relationship over the long term, including one with ourselves. Because the forgiveness in this myth is perfect, the grace infinite, no one is beyond its reach.  However unable you are to accept yourself, or obtain absolution from others, God is still there. It opens a gateway to renewed self-love, and because whole communities believe in this and place God's judgment above their own, it opens gateways to re-acceptance into the community as well. That no one is beyond redemption is powerful, because placing someone beyond redemption makes them incorrigible or worse. This is the ultimate restorative justice, powered by magic/God.

Like the tale of the Boy Who Lived in Harry Potter: there was darkness, and it was sundered by the power of love as manifested in an infant. A mysterious event met largely with relief and gratitude, a bewildering Deus Ex Machina. Who would not be grateful for the sudden respite?

This is not to say that there are no problems with the myth, but on a holiday celebrating it I prefer to put that aside and appreciate it for the worthier parts. We have to live with each other; it may as well be in harmony. Peace on Earth and good will towards men - it all starts with the grace to forgive.  The myth has literary meaning that extends into our real lives;  Jesus does not have to really exist for this to matter, though that does sound nice.

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The racist thing I did.

A belief that white Americans often seem stuck with is the idea that racism necessarily implies at least some minimal amount of malicious intent.  The term has been associated so entirely with  clearly identifiable villains that normal folk who think of themselves as good people are unwilling to entertain the idea that something they said or did might be racist.  They're really saying they would never be racist on purpose, and they don't understand that most racism happens without any conscious intent to be racist.

Imagine for a moment some future dystopia in which most jobs are given out by a machine, and the machine identifies individuals by biometric thumb scan.  And let's say that this machine is less accessible to black people because it has difficulty reading darker skin and wasn't tested at the factory to work on a variety of thumbs.  The result would be that it would be harder for brown people to get jobs because they can't simply use the machine, they have to struggle with it - sometimes unsuccessfully.  This creates a systemic bias against them, and would be racism.  It does not matter that it was not intentional.  It does not matter that the creator did not want to make the machine discriminatory.  It does not even matter if the creator is black (although that would make this outcome much less likely, which is part of how racism works.)  The machine systemically hurts an oppressed racial group; it is therefore racist.  We can talk about what everyone intended to do later, but we must first acknowledge this fact.

It is easiest and most effective to be critical of ourselves.  Let's go there.

So, I am a white business owner.  (This is not hypothetical, I am describing reality now.)  I just hired someone.  I hired them out of my pool of personal contacts, selecting someone who I believe is capable of and will benefit from the job.  Because my personal contacts are disproportionally white compared to the population, it was overwhelmingly likely that this approach would result in hiring a white person.  This is racism.  It does not matter that I didn't intend it, or that I recognized and did not like it.  It is still a contribution, however small, to a system that stacks the deck against some people because of their race.  Do you understand?

I am not alone, of course.  White people overwhelmingly have the wealth in our country, are overwhelmingly in the positions of power to make hiring decisions, and overwhelmingly have their social circles populated by other white people.  Combine this with the (natural, not in and of itself racist) tendency to hire people personally known, and then from your network of contacts, and THEN from the anonymous public, and you have systemic bias.  Large companies and government agencies generally require jobs to be posted publicly to avoid exactly this kind of nepotism, but smaller companies generally do not and smaller companies tend to do most of the job creating.  Do you understand?

The decision was also sexist, for similar but different reasons.  Somewhere out there is an applicant, possibly someone more qualified than the person I hired, who does not even get to know that a job opening existed.  When I conjure a list of people I might want to hire, the list is comprised entirely of straight white men.  This is not intentional but it is also not a coincidence.  Do you understand?

The black unemployment rate is consistently double the white unemployment rate.  Do you understand?

I have a lot of Very Good Reasons* for making the hire this way; good enough to sway me against the fairer approach of making the opening public and interviewing applicants.  But those reasons don't change the impact of what I've done.  That stuff is just explanation of intent, of what I meant to do and why I meant to do it.  The fact is that this practice contributes to racism and sexism, and I consider myself under a moral obligation to change it as soon as practical. 

When you're a white guy growing a company in a racist and sexist society, developing that company with real diversity probably requires deliberate effort on your part.  It isn't going to happen "naturally" in most cases.

*The reasons, if you care, are: fear of risk, change, and uncertainty; convenience; lack of confidence in my ability to choose a candidate based only on a resume and interview; and cost savings.

In short, I made the decision out of self-interest, choosing what seemed easiest and best for me and the circle of people I care most about - which includes the person I hired.  There was no malice, no "intent to be racist", but it was still a racist thing.  Running a company is hard, and I do not begrudge myself the freedom to do what keeps my company from becoming a statistic, but nepotism from white people amounts to racism.  I know this, and it sticks in my throat some. 

Do you understand?

Monday, October 21, 2013

I love Wrecking Ball, but hate the video.

Many videos feature gratuitious, problematic objectification, but the video for Wrecking Ball is willing to be incongruous and senseless to do so.

The video opens. Miley is crying. This song is about pain and loss.  It's about giving your all and having it not be enough. There is no reason for her to be enticing anyone.  She isn't trying to win him back or move on with someone else; this is not sexy time, it is the fall. I can feel a quiet rage under her surface. We get shots of her holding the sledgehammer, and there is a promise of what is to come.

The music rises into the first chorus, angry, hurting. "I came in like a wrecking ball..." She's holding the sledge above her head now, poised, strong, tattooed. Beneath a butch haircut and above a lithe body, her face has begun to set. There is stoicism, resolve, anger. She's crossing some gender boundaries here, exhibiting masculine power in a feminine body. I'm reminded of Pink, I'm thinking how much the lesbians are eating this up, and I'm inhaling in anticipation because shit is about to get real. Her rage is about to erupt into the physical world. Her face will contort, her well-muscled body will flex and twist, and there will be a mighty blow from that hammer.  Left to right across the screen, BAM! Rocks everywhere.  It will be a dual metaphor, an expression of how hard she tried to reach past his walls, and a destructive manifestation of her present pain and fury.

Wait, ok, not yet. She's doing like a runway thing with the hammer first. Ok, now she's... is she going to fellate that hammer? "WHAT THE FUCK AM I WATCHING?" screams one part of my brain, while another sits up and starts paying attention. Maybe there is going to be a different kind of "mighty blow." And that tradeoff right there, that's what I find to be a particular problem. Throughout the rest of the video she is portrayed as passive, wounded, and sexually available. No rubble is too uncomfortable for her to make sexy pose on. The symbols of her power, the wrecking ball and the sledgehammer, become symbols of male power (read: cocks) between her thighs for her to submissively gyrate and pose with. She is not wielding power, she is riding on it, and not from the driver's seat. Someone else is swinging that ball, she's just an ornament making it sexier.  (I'm reminded of mud-flap girl.)  Suddenly our heroine is cast into the passive supporting role.  She will take no actions.  She is going to wait, like a properly distressed damsel, for someone else.  But there's no one else in the video, where is her hero?  Why, it's you, hetero male viewers.  It's you. 

She does bring the hammer down once, and this shot fails utterly to convey strength.  Maybe a big strong man in the audience would like to show her how to swing that thing properly?  Or just do it for her?  And maybe they tried, and Miley Cyrus actually can't swing a sledge hammer (which I kinda doubt.)  Could this not be overcome with prop hammers and walls?  Could she not just get in the cab of the crane and appear to be piloting the wrecking ball?  That is the theme of the song, yes?  Hard hat, dirt-smudged face, and an angry pull of the lever?  Look me in the eye and the tell me that a Pink version of this video would not have successfully portrayed her as a hurting but strong person with agency and humanity, and not as a pin-up girl in her underwear.

They did not accidentally fail to show her being strong.  They were not trying.  Her transformation into passive sexual object is entirely deliberate.  They showed what they (she?) wanted to show, which was her passive, sexy body.  This might have been a deliberate choice on Cyrus' part, but that does little to improve the message.  We are not viewing sexual agency.

The Wrecking Ball video starts out promising to show us a phoenix in the process of violent immolation, and transforms that into a montage of boyhood sexual fantasies about Miley's body. I am disappoint.

In fact, I'm so mad that I'm going to go pose on some sharp rocks in my sexy underwear and wait for someone to do something about it.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Our military needs to break out the guillotine.

Rape in the U.S. military is an ongoing, systemic problem.

Some have blamed this on gender integration, but that is wrong because (among other reasons) about half of the victims are men.

'"It is only natural for commanders to want to believe that a crime did not happen," he said. "Making it disappear entails less risk for their careers. And not pursuing prosecution is much less disruptive for their units."
After his commanders learned of the attack, he was misdiagnosed, he said, with personality disorder and given a general discharge instead of an honorable discharge.'

Let me attempt to explain how broken that is from a military perspective.  A commander is responsible for everything that happens under their command.  Everything.  No, seriously.  All of it.  There is no plausible deniability, because you should have known.  There is no "the person that works for me fucked this up." because it is your job to make sure that they don't.  As we said, "Authority can be delegated, but the responsibility remains yours."  If the training, the procedures, the culture, or the people under your command are not tuned to create success, then that is your personal failure.

The incident that most drove this home for me was the sinking of the Ehime Maru.  You can read about it here  
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ehime_Maru_and_USS_Greeneville_collision  but basically a U.S. submarine accidentally crashed into and sunk a Japanese civilian vessel, thereby killing some people, including students.  In the aftermath, my captain personally conducted training for our whole crew, and gave us a message that you won't read in that wiki article. (paraphrased from memory)

The Greenville sunk that Japanese ship because the captain had fostered an image of himself as infallible and not to be questioned.  Multiple people in Control [a location the ship is driven from] had concerns about how dense the civilians were in Control and that this was interfering with their jobs.  The Firecontrol Tech in sonar, Seacrest, had indication that the Ehime Maru was too close, but doubted himself because this contradicted the captain's assessment.  The captain had created a culture that was not conducive to the concerns of the crew being presented to the chain of command, and this set the command up for failure.  Those people died because that captain's crew was reluctant to tell him he had gotten something wrong.  And that... that is the captain's fault.  He is responsible for creating that culture.

And so, our captain said, I do not want you to be afraid to tell me when I'm getting something wrong.  If you think there is a problem, if you think there might be a problem, any one of you can say "Wait. Stop.  This doesn't seem right." and we'll stop, and we'll look at it, reassess, and move on from there.

Culture matters, and the command is responsible for the culture.  In this case, our military's culture is leaving rape victims to the wolves.  It's unacceptable.  It's bad for morale.  It's bad for recruitment.  It hurts readiness and unit cohesion.  It's absolutely wrong, and if covering up a rape isn't conduct un-fucking-becoming, I don't know what is.  Has no one stopped to wonder what else these commanders are willing to cover up?  How can you occupy a position that requires good judgment and high trust if you will not face the difficult problems?  A commander that covered up an operational incident would be Fucking Fired (different from regular fired), and this should be no different.  A military, particularly a volunteer military, cannot achieve excellence under these conditions.  These commanders, all of them, have a responsibility to create an environment which prevents rape, advocates for the victims, and delivers justice.

Heads need to roll, and it starts at the top.  President Obama, you are the Commander in Chief. This is your military.  Fix it.  Now.

Media: I want to be hearing as much about this as I did about Catholic priests.