Friday, July 29, 2011

Networking Nightmare

Sorry for the extended silence. I've been busy, partly with a family situation that prompted me to (reluctantly) join Facebook, and partly with Google+. As a newcomer to both Facebook and Google+,* I'm simultaneously overwhelmed (by all the data suddenly streaming into my life, from Google+ and from relatives via Facebook), underwhelmed (by Facebook's interface), and enthralled (by Google+, and I mean that in both the "Wow!" and "I've sold my soul to Google" senses).

Things are starting to settle down, though, and I'm looking forward to the weekend. I hope to drop by the Oklahoma Freethought Convention tomorrow at least long enough to sit in on ERV's talk. I've seen ERV (a.k.a. Abbie Smith) give a couple of other presentations, and they were simultaneously entertaining and informative. I'm not as familiar with the other scheduled speakers (Matt Dillahunty, "AronRa," "The Thinking Atheist," Matt Silverstein, and Dr. William G. Morgan), so I'll just be playing it by ear once Abbie is done.

Have a good weekend, y'all.

* And social networking in general, although I've used LinkedIn for about a year, and have participated in various user forums to some degree for decades, starting in the era of dial-up Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs). If the phrase "HI MAGGI" means anything to you, you're probably in my neighborhood, both age- and location-wise.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Meriting Badges?

I've capitulated. I've joined Google Plus (a.k.a. "Google+" or just "G+"). And for the most part, I'm enjoying it, although I'm following (or "have circled") so many celebrities† that my Google+ "Stream" is getting quite long. I really need a way to collapse comments so I don't have to scroll forever to get past the stuff posted by the followers of the people I'm following.

A sure sign of Google+'s popularity (however fleeting it may be) is the number of celebrities and celebrity impersonators it's attracted in the three weeks it's been live. Google would obviously be pleased to have celebrities endorse Google+ by using it, so the company is working on a "celebrity acquisition plan" and a scheme for verifying that celebrities are who they claim to be. (William Shatner would probably have appreciated an opportunity to prove his identity before his Google+ account was suspended, but the error has been corrected.)

Google+ isn't the only new feature that Google is working on this week. Google News, "a computer-generated news site that aggregates headlines from news sources worldwide, groups similar stories together, and displays them according to each reader's personalized interests," has implemented a system of "badges" for subjects that you read up on frequently. By default, your badges are shown only to you, but you can share (publicize) them if you want. I'm not sure whether I want to earn, let alone share, Google badges, since at first blush they seem about as useful as those cheesy certificates I got in elementary school for reading library books during summer vacation. And to earn badges, I'd have to actually click on links to read news articles. No more pretending to be up-to-date on current events by just skimming headlines!

PC World suggests that if badges catch on, "it's going to become increasingly easy to spot spammers simply looking to promote a brand without any knowledge of it. Authentic businesses (and individuals behind them) will get a credibility boost by displaying their high-level badges." Maybe so, but Google still needs to work on the algorithms that determine the subjects of articles before I'll take the badge system seriously. I'm on my way to earning a badge about Google itself, which is appropriate since I've recently read about a dozen articles on the company. But instead of giving me points for reading articles on Scientology, Google hints that I might qualify for a badge on prominent Scientologist Tom Cruise. Bleah.

† Well, celebrities to me, anyway. People like John Halamka (who doesn't seem to be posting anything to Google+ yet) and Greg Laden (who is active on Google+) would probably not be considered "celebrities" by most people.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Resigning to the Inevitable

Laura Fotusky, the municipal clerk of the tiny town of Barker in upstate New York, has resigned her position so she won't have to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Ms. Fotusky believes that "God designed marriage as a divine institution to protect our families and our culture and our society, and so [same-sex marriage] goes against His plan." Ms. Fotusky is the first city clerk in New York to resign rather than be involved in same-sex marriages, but may not be the last. Gov. Andrew Cuomo says that those who "enforce the laws of the state...don't get to pick and choose which if you can't enforce the law, then you shouldn't be in that position."

Damn right! Now if we could just get pharmacists who refuse to dispense emergency contraception (or any contraceptives at all, as is the case at so-called "pro-life pharmacies") and high-school biology teachers who balk at teaching evolution because of their own creationist beliefs to follow Ms. Fotusky's brave example and quit their jobs too. When asked to perform a task that's perfectly legal and in line with your skill set and job description, but not your church's teachings, resignation is the obvious and honorable solution.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Insisting On ID

I've been hoping that Google+ would be a better, more private alternative for social networking than Facebook. One of the reasons I don't use Facebook is their policy that users must sign up under their real names,† and now I hear that Google+ has the same policy. (To be nit-picky, the "real name" requirement seems to be tied to Google Profiles, not directly to Google+, but the two services are tightly linked, and I believe that you have to have a Google Profile to use Google+.)

Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, said in a CNBC interview a couple of years ago: "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." For the average person who just wants to keep in touch with classmates, coworkers, friends and relatives, "Don't do stupid stuff" (or at least, "Don't post evidence of stupid stuff you've done where the whole world can see it") is a reasonable attitude. For those who have legitimate reasons to conceal their legal name, gender, likeness, and location from all but selected individuals, it's less reasonable. Whistleblowers, victims of abuse, and those suffering from embarrassing medical or psychiatric conditions, for example, need social interaction just as much as (or more than) the rest of us, but are unlikely to seek it in a public forum. And as the CNET article points out, "People's online names, while not on their birth certificates, often are a real persona--reputation and all." That's one reason I prefer to be known as "Ckbep"...that, and the fact that being an atheist in a state that's so red it's maroon requires a certain amount of discretion. There's no dishonor in declining to pin a target on your own chest.

† Which are visible to everyone.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Posting Early

Apparently I'm not the only one who prepares posts in advance:

I try to be a little more careful about what I actually publish, though! (In case you haven't already heard, the news story shown at the top of the screenshot is the correct one. The final flight of the US space shuttle program successfully launched earlier today, despite forecasts of foul weather and a brief delay to ensure that a "vent arm," whatever that is, had properly retracted.)

I've got plans for Saturday, so I'm posting a day early. Have a great weekend, y'all!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Writing Off Penmanship

I've been waiting with trepidation for the day when schools officially embrace SMS-inspired abbreviations like u r ("you are"), l8r ("later"), and i <3 u ("I 'heart' [love] you"), and spelling tests disappear or at least are graded more leniently. So I shouldn't have been surprised to hear that Indiana public schools will no longer be required to teach cursive handwriting, but I was.

Although my own handwriting is often illegible even to myself, I'm oddly fond of cursive, maybe because it's been championed by people I admire. My mother's gorgeous handwriting looks like an example from a penmanship manual because "that's how we were taught to write back then," she says. When I took a couple of semesters of Russian in college, the instructor, a native Russian, allowed the class to print (in Cyrillic, of course) only for the first half of the first semester. After that, she started deducting points from homework assignments and tests that weren't written in cursive. "In Russia, only little children print," she explained.

I'm thrilled to wave bye-bye to most skills that are obsolete, or nearly so. Thanks to electronic banking, I've only had to write about ten checks in the last five years. I never really got the hang of manual record turntables, and almost always produced that horrid zipping/scratching sound when putting the needle on a vinyl record. Typing on an actual typewriter—I even had a manual (non-electric) student model in my youth—and using Wite-Out® correction fluid are now as antiquated as getting up from the sofa to change TV channels. There are some things I'll miss, though. I never got, and now never will get, my chance to pilot the space shuttle, darn it. And there are a few practices that I stubbornly refuse to let die. I mow my lawn with an old-fashioned push mower; it's good for the environment and my cardiovascular system. I baked a cake from scratch just last week. I handle most correspondence via emails or greeting cards, but I still write condolence letters by hand (even though I first compose them on computer, then copy them out in pen). Writing still has its place.

Indiana schools that want to teach cursive handwriting will be allowed to do so, but my guess is that most won't bother. Andree Anderson of the Indiana University Northwest Urban Teacher Education Program says that cursive lessons have been a low priority for a while now. Keyboard proficiency will be the new focus, and eventually even that will be supplemented or replaced by something else: voice commands, multi-touch gestures like "pinch to zoom," neural implants...who knows? I think that the use of paper and pencil will eventually be limited to the briefest of notes, probably no more than will fit on a Post-It®. Until someone invents disposable devices that'll display text and stick to pretty much anything, we've got to at least have Post-Its!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Aging In Absentia

Had she lived, Princess Diana would have celebrated her 50th birthday last Friday, but even in death, she can't escape reporters and the post-mortem version of paparazzi. Newsweek's Tina Brown spins a yarn of what Diana's life could have been like if she'd lived, after she'd broken up with Dodi Al-Fayed (as Ms. Brown assumes that she would have). Brown's conjectures about the middle-aged Diana's taste in men, what cosmetic procedures she'd have used, and whether she'd have forgiven those who wronged her could serve as the outline for a romance novel. They'd have to find a better cover picture for the novel than the "age progressed" and "updated" photo that accompanied the Newsweek article, though.

One of the minor—perhaps only—consolations of losing someone who died much too young is that in your memory, they'll always be young. Thanks, Newsweek, for screwing with my memories. The periodical's motive for publishing the article and the modified photograph is, I'm sure, to titillate readers and sell as many magazines as possible. I think they chickened out, though. Given the popularity of television dramas like "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," why not just go whole hawg and print a projection of what Diana's actual remains look like today?

N.B. I thought about including a copy of the doctored photo with this post, then decided it's not an image that I want to perpetuate. If you want to see it, go check out the article and photo on Newsweek's site. I couldn't find the original of the modified photo, but did find one that could serve as a reasonable comparison. Here's how I'd prefer to remember Diana:

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Liking What You See?

I've mentioned that I don't use Facebook because I like my privacy. "Privacy" and "Facebook" are very nearly mutually exclusive concepts. I'm more comfortable with Google, and use several of its services (including, obviously, Blogger). Now Google has announced a new service called Google+, which seems poised to be a competitor—or at least alternative—to Facebook, and with much better privacy controls.

Google+ is currently in the testing stage and available only by invitation, but even when it becomes available to the general public, I'm still going to consider carefully whether I want to use it or not. Privacy issues aside, Google's reputation isn't what it used to be. Features that were rolled out with much fanfare, like Google Health and Google Wave, died lonely, pitiful deaths. The launch of Google Buzz was fraught with missteps, and Google's chairman, Eric Schmidt, admitted that he was too "busy" to pay much attention to social networking as services like Facebook and LinkedIn were experiencing explosive growth.

Mistrust of Facebook/Google/et al. isn't the biggest impediment to my participation in social networking, though. My problem is that I just don't get it. I overthink it, and that removes much of the potential for fun. Take something as simple as a "Like" button, for example. In the context of the Internet, what exactly does the word "like" mean? When I'm reading news and blog posts via Google Reader, I'm fine with clicking "Like" on an item that brings a smile to my face, or that was particularly well-written, or tells me something I really need to know. But on what level can I "like" a story such as the following?

"Body in public pool undetected for days: Authorities say the body of a woman who died in a Massachusetts public pool went undetected for days as swimmers continued to use the pool before the victim was found floating."

8 people "liked" this. Ewww...

For the morbidly curious, there's more info below the jump. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Rethinking My Position on Hate Crimes

I've long had mixed feelings about the concept of "hate" crimes ("assault, injury, and murder on the basis of certain personal characteristics"). When sentencing a criminal, does it really matter why their victim was harmed? Should someone who injured or killed another because of the victim's perceived membership in a group (ethnic, religious, gender, sexual orientation, age, etc.) be punished more severely than someone who didn't know or care about such factors? I'm not an attorney (although I think I ought to get partial credit in law school for all the time I've spent watching "Law & Order" and its multiple spinoffs), so my understanding of the variables involved in sentencing is limited. I know that demonstrating motive can be an important part of convincing a jury that the accused is guilty, but I'm not convinced that motive should figure into punishment, unless perhaps an assailant claims that the crime wasn't premeditated, that s/he temporarily abandoned reason and lashed out in the heat of the moment.

Whoever slashed the tires on 51 floats scheduled to participate in the 42nd annual Chicago Pride Parade wasn't acting in the heat of the moment. According to Chuck Huser, the manager of the company that stored the floats in preparation for the parade, the perpetrator(s) "were probably here [in the company's warehouse] a long time to do so much damage." Since every float in the warehouse was damaged and the incident took place sometime between 8:30 PM Saturday and 5:00 AM Sunday, just hours before the parade was scheduled to start, it's reasonable to assume that the criminal(s) hoped to derail the event. Happily, they failed and the revelers prevailed. The float supplier managed to find and replace more than 100 tires in short order, all but three of the floats rolled out as planned, and the parade's organizers believe that this year's crowd was the largest ever.

Huser estimates that the damage cost his firm about $20,000, a significant amount, but one that seems relatively minor in comparison to the furor that would have resulted if the parade had been cancelled. Huser "firmly believe[s] it was a hate crime." This incident hasn't turned me into a full-fledged proponent of hate crime laws, but it's certainly got me thinking.

H/T to Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars

(Hey, Greta Christina just blogged about San Francisco's LGBT Pride Parade, and how "coming out" as an atheist is fundamentally different from coming out as gay. Highly recommended.)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Passing the Plate for Brother Sam

If you've never seen Brother Sam Singleton, Atheist Evangelist, in action, you're missing out on a fine time. (If you're reading my blog, you're probably the skeptical sort who's not gonna take my word on this, so get yourself over to Sam's web site or his YouTube channel and see for yourself.)

Roger Scott Jackson (who created the fictional character and portrays him onstage) "examines the role of Christianity in America, how it governs the lives of believers and impacts the lives of non-believers." That's from the "PATRIARCHS AND PENISES Live Performance DVD" KickStarter page, where you can pledge financial support toward the creation of a DVD of one of Brother Sam's stage performances. The project will proceed only if $3,157 is pledged by Sunday Jul 10, 7:24pm EDT, so get yourself over there and donate what you can! If you pledge at least $25 (and the $3,157 goal is reached by July 10th), you'll get a copy of the DVD, but amounts as small as $1 are welcome, and "Brother Sam" is offering gifts at practically every donation level.

I wish I could afford to donate $500. I already have a copy of the "Patriarchs and Penises" paperback book—signed by Brother Sam himself at last year's Skepticon—but lifetime admission to all of Brother Sam's appearances and a pair of his trademark blue spectacles (can I get those with bifocals?) would be awesome.

H/T to JT Eberhard

Updated at 6:30 PM: I guess I ought to start checking my email before I publish posts; Brother Sam has already reached his goal with 11 days to go yet! I'm pretty sure he'll still take your money, though. Or go visit the Brother Sam Club (online store) and order yourself some goodies there. Goddamn.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Hopping Mad

NBC affiliate KSL-TV has informed the network that it won't broadcast the drama series "The Playboy Club" that is scheduled to begin in September because "significant portions of [the station's] audience may find [it] objectionable." According to Joe Flint, entertainment blogger for the Los Angeles Times, KSL's refusal to broadcast network programming "isn't a huge deal" because NBC will probably find another station in the market that will air the show, and if not, "odds are episodes will end up on Hulu or some other website. In other words, people in Salt Lake who really want to see the show won't be denied."

I agree with Flint that technology provides solutions to this issue, but I think it should work in the other direction. Rather than letting KSL decide what its viewers should and should not be allowed to view, let the viewers choose what they want to see. From what I hear, "The Playboy Club" contains less "adult" content than a typical episode of NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" (a police drama that features frank discussions of rape and other violence in pretty much every episode), and KSL seems to trust its viewers to change channels or turn off the TV if they object to that show. Parental control features are built into most TVs, cable and satellite receivers, and DVRs these days. Parents who are unable or unwilling to deal with configuring those appropriately could take the drastic step of just chucking television from their homes entirely.

Bill Baker, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, says "...KSL’s decision to stick with its values in the face of NBC’s disapproval is admirable and courageous. No matter how profitable it may be for some, I, for one, do not want to live in a world where local communities have no say in what they watch on television." "Local communities" don't watch television; individuals watch television, and most communities let individuals decide what they watch on television. KSL's community is special, though. It's in Salt Lake City, Utah—in fact, it appears to be the only NBC affiliate in the state—and its parent company Bonneville International is owned by the Church of The Latter-day Saints. KSL President and CEO Mark Willes says, "The Playboy brand is known internationally. Everyone is clear what it stands for." Yes, and those who don't like what it stands for can find something else to watch or do when the program runs.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Washing of the Water

Via NetFlix, I'm watching the documentary "Waiting for Armageddon." Not quite half an hour into it, some American tourists are being baptized in the Jordan River. One of the men, who doesn't appear to have been dunked yet, explains how he's looking forward to observing the coming "tribulation" from a front-row seat in heaven: "It'll be, I think, a lot of fun to watch. You know, not fun in the sense of knowing that people are dying without having received Christ as their savior, but at the same time, you know, seeing the prophecy fulfilled, seeing God's work come out."

Those who have already been baptized look pretty much the same coming out of the river as they did going in, except that their hair is wet and their voluminous white smocks, which look like oversized T-shirts, are just as clingy and transparent as wet T-shirts. (No worries, they're wearing bathing suits underneath, and although the crowd consists of both men and women of a variety of ages, the only dunkees on which the camera dwells are two of the younger and more attractive women.) Somehow I expected the newly-baptized to sparkle like the "Twilight" vampires, or at least look happier than they did before their immersion, but they don't. I suppose that most Americans who are baptized at the Jordan River have already been through the experience back in the States, so this would be a repeat performance, kind of like renewing your wedding vows. Perhaps it's a more solemn ceremony the second time around, or in a "sacred" place.

A local church's recent mass baptism in a water park's "wave pool" seems to have been a lot more jolly, at least for the people being baptized. Other customers were admitted to the park for a reduced fee but weren't clearly notified in advance that the church had rented out the pool, and were upset when they were ordered out of the water. One observer wondered if a water park "was the right place or not" for a baptism. Personally, I wish I'd been there; I think it would have been fascinating to see how to "efficiently" baptize 150 people. What would really have been fascinating would be a trippy baptism scene like the one in "The Last Temptation of Christ," but that's just asking too much of my fellow Oklahomans.

(The screencap does not include the three naked, head-banging women who appeared in the movie's baptism scene. If that's what you came here looking for, sorry!)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Bringing Shame Upon Us All

Vandalism has been an ongoing topic in the freethought community since we "new" (or "Gnu") atheists started advertising our presence via billboards and banners on city buses. Even ads that make no attempt to demean anyone's beliefs and simply state facts like "Millions are good without God" have been vandalized. I don't know whether the vandals consider themselves Christians, but if they do, I'd actually be pleased on some level. On the other hand, I take no pleasure in the news that two Christian churches in Bend, Oregon were vandalized by someone who sprayed "Flying Spaghetti Monster" slogans and graphics on their buildings. The vandals have been caught, and seem to regard their work as a "near-harmless" prank for which they've paid by cleaning up other taggers' graffiti. They've rationalized their actions by saying that they used washable paint and just wanted to "make a point" and bring some "fun" to the city. Does that mean it's OK for someone to spray-paint a smiley face on my house using washable paint, because it's easy to clean off and might bring "some joy and fun" to my neighborhood?

Hemant Mehta at rightfully deplored the defacing of the buildings and requested donations to help the churches clean up the graffiti. A couple hundred of his readers responded and raised nearly $3,000. That doesn't surprise me at all. What does surprise me is the number of people who commented on his blog and elsewhere that they just couldn't donate money that would be used to support a church (to which Hemant replied, "You’d be giving money toward the clean-up costs and nothing more"). In the end, both churches whose buildings were defaced cleaned up the graffiti themselves and declined the money, so Hemant forwarded it to the Foundation Beyond Belief.†

If a church (or synagogue, or mosque, or Scientology center††) was damaged by a natural event such as severe weather (an "act of God"!), I wouldn't donate money or time to repair it, nor would I urge other freethinkers to do so (although I wouldn't criticize those who wanted to help). I wouldn't urge atheists to help clean up graffiti at Christian churches if they felt that wasn't the best use of their time or money; I don't think that we're all obligated to atone for the actions of a few freethinkers.††† But in the face of criminal acts, isn't declining to help the vandalized churches solely because they are churches kind of like Christians who act honorably...but only toward other Christians?

† Foundation Beyond Belief is "a 501(c)(3) charitable foundation created to focus, encourage and demonstrate the generosity and compassion of atheists and humanists." I'm a contributing member and recommend it highly.

†† A Scientology center in Ocala, Florida that prominent Scientologist John Travolta helped open a few weeks ago had the letters "ANON" spray-painted on its windows, presumably as a reference to the group "Anonymous" that has targeted the Church of Scientology.

††† Or at least those who commit mayhem using phrases and symbols associated with freethought. I don't know whether the vandals consider themselves freethinkers or not.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Breaking From Blogging, Briefly

My personal life is pretty busy at the moment (mostly in a good way), so my posting schedule has gotten somewhat erratic. I hope to resume my regular Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday schedule next week. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Hungering for Heritage

Have you heard the joke about the Irishman who asks a stranger whether he's a Catholic or a Protestant? "I'm an atheist," replies the stranger. "Ah," says the Irishman, "but what kind of atheist are you—Catholic or Protestant?"

It seemed a feeble joke to me the first time I heard it maybe 20 years ago, but since then I've come to understand that religion is more than just a set of beliefs about god(s), rules to live by, and hopes (or fears) about our existence beyond death. Religion is also about culture and customs. An excellent example of this can be found in Judaism, which places less emphasis on a "personal god" than does Christianity or Islam, and quite a bit of emphasis on ritual and tradition. And don't forget the food! I have no idea whether ex-Mormons crave dishes like Jell-O salad and "funeral potatoes" after they've left the fold; what little I know of Mormon cuisine suggests that it focuses more on frugality and practicality than taste. But I simply cannot imagine "cultural" or "secular" Jews turning up their noses at Jewish food no matter how little regard they have for Jewish theology.

Even atheists like me have been steeped in religious culture all our lives, so I think I understand what English writer and atheist Philip Pullman means when he describes himself as a "Church of England atheist." Pullman says that he "remember[s] the beautiful prayers from matins or evensong or the Communion service" in the voice of his grandfather, an Anglican clergyman. "We can't abandon these early memories, by which I mean both that it's impossible and that it would be wrong." How true. Eliminating all religious-based terms and practices from our lives would be nearly impossible, like trying to remove every chocolate chip from a chocolate chip cookie, and the result would be pretty boring.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Talking to Christians: Some Tips

I just watched an interesting video by a guy named Matt Slick. I hadn't previously heard of him, but he's got some excellent tips for atheists who are dealing with Christians, and his advice would work equally well with other believers, such as Muslims (or for that matter, for skeptics who are dealing with believers in "woo").

Here are excerpts of my transcription of Matt's video, which is titled "How to Talk to Christians":
Hi, my name is Matt Slick and welcome to the CARM Answer Desk. I want to discuss the issue of Christians and how they attack atheists and atheism. [snip] I'm gonna give you some pointers on how to deal with some Christians, OK? Atheists, listen to this. Look, we know that the Christians are constantly attacking atheism and attacking what we have to say. Well, I'm gonna tell you some basic, basic stuff that you can do to deal with them, all right?

Let's say for example a Christian makes an assertion. I'm gonna give an overly simplified one. You know, they'll say something like, "There is a god." OK, you know what? Instead of saying "Oh no there's not!" and then trying to prove it, I would say to them something like, "Well, how do you know that?" Ask questions! If they make an assertion, have them substantiate their assertion. Very, very simple. Have them establish what it is they're saying. [snip]

Remember this, don't try and just simply refute whatever they say whenever they say it. I'm known for saying this great comeback when a Christian says something to me. They'll say something like, "Well, atheists are really arrogant," and I'll say something like "So? What's the big deal about it? If you don't like us, OK, whatever." And the Christians, you know, what are they gonna do? [snip]

So, when a Christian is talking to you, ask those questions, and...seriously, [say] "Yeah, so, what's the big deal about it?" Get them to explain more. And the more they do that, then the more you're gonna find out that they're gonna have holes in their ideas and holes in their statements. It's not that difficult to do. [snip]

Now, I'd also say that what you need to do is admit—this is important, atheists!—admit when you don't have an answer. You know, if I were a Christian and I was talking to some atheist and this atheist was trying to snow me, and trying to give an answer for every single thing, and the answers are falling apart, I'm not gonna have any respect for that person. But I'd have a lot more respect for someone who said, "You know what, that's a good question. I'm not really sure; let me go research it for you and get back with you." That's not a problem, that's intellectually honest, and you know, I do that. You can do that, and you know what, even when Christians do that, I appreciate that when I'm talking to them, and I ask them a question, and they don't have an answer, and they say, "Well, you know what? That's a good question! I'll have to go back and research it." No problem at all. And then just follow up and do that.

So basically, dealing with Christians isn't that difficult. They're the ones who often make assertions. Ask them to demonstrate the validity of their assertions. Listen to what they're saying. Ask questions about what they're saying. See if their statements are logical, see if there's some problem inside the logic. For example, what if a Christian said, "There is a god, I know there is a god," you'd have to know all things to know if there is or is no god, so logically it's not possible. So by listening to what they say, you can hopefully learn a little bit about logic in their statements and see if their statements are valid or not. It's not that difficult; it's pretty easy. So basically, ask questions, listen, find out their presuppositions, admit if you don't have an answer, and learn to say "So?" a lot. See how it goes, and I think you might enjoy your discussions with Christians a lot more.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Storing Up Treasures Under the Earth

The University of Chicago has opened its new library, the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library (named for Morningstar CEO Joe Mansueto and his wife Rika, both UChicago graduates, who donated $25 million to the library expansion project). The Chicago Tribune says that "students seem to love" the new library's glass dome design "because it lets natural light pour inside, liberating them from the university’s dimly-lit reading rooms." The library probably looks best when it's sunny; it seems rather cold and sterile in the pics that Jerry Coyne took on a rainy day:

(Photos by Jerry Coyne of "Why Evolution Is True")

Anyway, the real marvel of the library is not its architecture but its system for storing and retrieving books. The university wanted to keep its media on-site but didn't like the idea of a huge new building that would have crowded existing structures, so books and periodicals are stored in a temperature-controlled underground vault that can hold as many as 3.5 million volumes. Inside the vault are thousands of bins that each hold roughly 100 books sorted by size rather than subject or author, in order to make the most efficient use of the space. When a library patron requests a book at the circulation desk, an automated retrieval system locates the bin containing the desired book, and delivers the whole bin to a human librarian† who retrieves the book and notifies the patron that it's ready to be picked up. The whole process is supposed to take less than 5 minutes.

The university produced a video demonstrating how the system works:

The Chicago Tribune's claims notwithstanding, this library wouldn't be my first choice for a satisfying reading experience, for the same reason that isn't my first choice for finding a good book when I don't have a specific work in mind. Sure, Amazon has good prices and a huge selection of books, but the "Look Inside!" feature (which is available for many, but not all, books) isn't nearly as interesting as scanning a physical shelf of books, comparing volume sizes and dust jacket designs, and flipping through pages to see if a sentence or paragraph jumps out at me.

Still, this new library is intended primarily for research, not casual reading, and I accept that the experience of reading has changed drastically over the centuries. Books have evolved from characters scratched on stone, to wax and clay tablets, to scrolls of papyrus and paper, to bound books, and now to ebooks. As much as I love the feel and smell of old books and the penciled notations of previous owners (or myself, in books I bought back in the days when I still underlined and annotated), a book's most precious quality is its ability to inform and transport us to places that we couldn't otherwise experience. So long as there are comfy chairs and mugs of tea at hand when I'm ready to be transported, I can deal with whatever container the ideas come in.

† When a job title such as "librarian" is prefaced with the word "human," I invariably think of Harlan Ellison's short story, "The Human Operators," which was also made into an episode of "The New Outer Limits." (The video is rated "TV-MA" and may not be appropriate for younger audiences.)

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Choosing His Words Carelessly

Sir V. S. Naipaul, winner of the Nobel prize for literature and the Booker Prize (among other prestigious writing awards), says that women's writing styles are quite different from men's, and that he can "read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two...know whether it is by a woman or not." That could be a useful skill, especially for writing instructors and editors who care whether a composition was actually written by the person who claims to be its author. Unfortunately Naipaul went on to say that he considers all women writers to be "unequal" to him because of their "sentimentality, the narrow view of the world." "[A] not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too," he said.

Well of course a woman is not a "master" of a house. A woman would be the owner of her house, or the head of her house, or perhaps the "mistress" of her house if she's the type who refers to the room nearest the front door as "the parlor." For a writer, Naipaul is terribly careless with his vocabulary. I suppose he's going to claim next that "a woman is not a complete gentleman"!

Naipual doesn't seem to dislike women so long as they conform to roles he's comfortable with. Of his female publisher, he said, "[She] was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh. I don't mean this in any unkind way."

This is an excellent example of why I generally prefer not to know too much about the private lives of artists whose work I admire. Sometimes background and personal details give you insight into the artist's thought processes and enhance your enjoyment of their work, but sometimes they make you think, "Why would I reward such a ninny by buying his books?" And when I refer to Naipaul as a ninny, I don't mean this in any unkind way.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Putting the Chicken Before the Egg

What is this object?

If you said "an egg," you're wrong. It's a baby chicken.

Seriously. It's a chicken, the moral equivalent of this:

That's Personhood USA's take on the matter, anyway. According to the group, "preborn children" "begin to exist immediately at first contact of the sperm with the oocyte [egg]" and are "created in the image of God."

So this:

was made in the image of this:

Berkas:Vishnu 2.jpg

Got it?

If the group achieves its goal of changing the legal definition of "personhood" to include fertilized eggs, any birth control method that interferes with the implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus—including intrauterine devices (IUDs) and some birth control pills—would be outlawed.†  All abortions would be banned, even for rape victims. Rebecca Kiessling, who was conceived via rape and is a featured speaker on Personhood Mississippi's "Conceived in Rape" tour (you've got to wonder what kind of T-shirt they came up with for that tour), states, "A baby is not the worst thing that could ever happen to a rape victim—an abortion is."

While I can't speak from first-hand experience, my guess is that rape is a prime contender for "the worst thing that could ever happen to a rape victim."

† Medically, pregnancy is considered to begin when a fertilized egg "implants", or becomes attached to the uterine wall.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Adorning the Driller

The Golden Driller is a 76-foot-tall statue of an oilfield worker that's stood at the Tulsa County Fairgrounds for most of my life. "Golden" is probably not the most accurate description of the big guy's color, but then, "Mustardy Driller" isn't a very catchy moniker, is it? Whatever color he is, he's a Tulsa icon. (And as I just now discovered, the Driller is also the official monument of the state of Oklahoma. He isn't included on the official "Oklahoma State Icons" page, but is listed in the "Oklahoma Emblems" section of this "Welcome to Oklahoma" pamphlet.)

As you can imagine, dressing a 76-foot-tall statue is no minor feat, but it can be done. A local radio station drapes the Driller in a tent-sized T-shirt every year during the state fair, and now the Oklahoma Scottish Festival wants to draw attention to their annual event and give His Goldenness a touch of class by draping him in the world's largest kilt. And we, his adoring fans, get to decide which tartan (pattern) will be used! Will it be the official City of Tulsa tartan? The Johnnie Walker tartan (the corporate tartan for Johnnie Walker Whisky)? Your own clan's tartan? You can buy as many votes as you want for only $1 apiece; the tartan with the most votes at 4:00 PM CST on June 1st, 2011 (that's tomorrow!) will win. I chipped in $10 to vote for the official tartan of my family. It's a small clan that hasn't a hope of winning, but whatever pattern prevails, it'll be cool to see the Driller in a kilt.

Fortunately the Driller already has permanently-installed trousers over which the kilt can be wrapped. Yeah, "regimental" is the way that true Scotsmen wear their kilts, but I don't think the Driller's a Scot, and that line from "Oklahoma!" about "the wind [that] comes sweepin' down the plain" is all too accurate.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Squaring Off

"In the world, but not of it" is a mindset that I associate with evangelical Christians, but it's not exclusive to them; Hasidic ("ultra-Orthodox") Jews live by the same philosophy. Most Hasidic Jews live in big cities like New York and Los Angeles, but some choose to live together in isolated communities so they can minimize their exposure to behaviors and clothing styles that might lead to "inappropriate" thoughts. Secular influences like television, non-religious music, and the Internet are strongly discouraged. Males and females are expected to remain physically separate in public places, to the point of walking on different sides of the street in some Hasidic communities. Hasidim dress very modestly; women are expected to cover almost all skin other than their faces and hands, and to wear a wig, headscarf, or hat. (The Hasidic village of Kiryas Joel was criticized by non-residents last year for putting up signs asking outsiders to "dress and behave in a modest way" while visiting the community.) The lifestyle sounds unbearably oppressive to me, but is intended to minimize worldly distractions and permit constant reflection on—and joy in—the nature of God.

A central aspect of Hasidic Judaism is loyalty to the group's "rebbe," who is not just a rabbi but also the leader of the community. The rebbe is consulted on spiritual matters and other important issues such as what job to take or who to vote for. The rebbe is regarded as the liaison between man and God; failure to accept his advice is viewed as an affront to the whole community. So when Aron Rottenberg, a resident of the Hasidic village of New Square (or "New Skver"†), New York, defied Rebbe David Twersky's directive to worship only at the community's main synagogue, he was criticized and intimidated by other New Square residents for more than a year. Windows in his car and house were smashed, and earlier this month, another dissident family's home caught fire. Reportedly, Rottenberg was told by other residents to leave the community, but he stood firm, although he did take the precaution of installing home security cameras.

Early Sunday morning, Rottenberg's security cameras showed 18-year-old Shaul Spitzer (who worked as a butler for Rebbe Twersky) on the house's back porch; it appears that Spitzer was trying to set a fire using a gasoline-soaked rag. Rottenberg confronted Spitzer and was badly burned over half his body. He's already endured several hours of skin graft surgery and is expected to be hospitalized for some time. Rottenberg's adult son was burned on his hands as he rolled his father on the ground to put out the flames. Spitzer has been charged with attempted murder, assault, and arson. His family and friends posted his $300,000 bail for him, but because he too was burned and remains hospitalized, being "out" on bail means only that the local sheriff's department doesn't have to guard him in the hospital.

Why Rottenberg chose to worship at a rehabilitation and nursing center a mile from his home instead of the village synagogue a few blocks away isn't really relevant, although Rottenberg's acquaintances/family members mentioned in news videos that he considered the sermons at the synagogue "too long," and that he wanted to teach people at the nursing center to pray correctly. Why Rebbe Twersky waited until several days after the incident to condemn the violence against Rottenberg is relevant, but I haven't heard any explanations for that. Why Rottenberg stayed in New Square after being ordered where to pray and then being abused for disregarding that order is none of my business, but I'd like to think it's because he's a grown man and (so far as I know) an American citizen, and realizes that he has the right to pray when and how he damned well pleases.

H/T to Howard Friedman at Religion Clause

† This story captured my attention in part because my screen name, "Cквер," when pronounced as a Russian word written in the Cyrillic alphabet, is pronounced "skver." "Skver" means "square" in the sense of a "community square" (a public space or garden), but my username has nothing to do with community gardens (or Hasidism). I first started using the name more than a decade ago, after reviewing several entries on the then-new Yahoo! Personals online dating site (which has now been absorbed into All I could think was, "Geez, I am such a square..."

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Teaching the Controversy

"It is well to know something of the manners of various peoples, in order more sanely to judge our own, and that we do not think that everything against our modes is ridiculous, and against reason, as those who have seen nothing are accustomed to think."—René Descartes, philosopher and mathematician (1596-1650)
More than 100,000 people signed a petition in support of making Religious Education (RE) a requirement for British students. Actually, I thought it already was required, and I wish that American school systems required comparative religion classes. As Stephen Prothero, author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn't, wrote in a USA Today article, "Even if religion doesn't make any sense to you, you can't make sense of the world without knowing something about the world's religions."

Surprisingly, at least to me, British faith leaders agree that RE should be required. They claim that without it, "a generation of children will have no knowledge of the role Faith plays in society" (capitalization in the original). Is this an acknowledgment that Brits just don't spend much time in church anymore? Personally, if I were religious and had kids, I'd worry that the knowledge they were exposed to in RE classes might encourage them to "comparison shop" and adopt a religion that appealed to them more than mine. That may be the concern of some Canadian parents who have unsuccessfully tried to keep their children out of the controversial Ethics and Religious Culture program taught in Quebec's schools on the grounds that the class could interfere with their children's moral education.

I couldn't find anything specifically about the effect of comparative religion classes on religious belief, although there are studies that show a negative correlation between education in general and religiosity. In other words, the more educated a person is, the less likely s/he is to be religious. And while you might think that people who've been exposed to lots of different religions are likely to believe in one of them, studies show that having an overwhelming number of choices may actually discourage people from making any choice.

Wow. As an atheist, I strongly oppose indoctrinating kids into religion, but now I have even more reason to support teaching them about as many religions as possible!

H/T to Howard Friedman at Religion Clause

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Weathering the Storm

I'm normally quite fond of the color pink, but not so much when the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center has it plastered over the part of the map that corresponds to my home. The predictions for "HIGH RISK OF SVR TSTMS ACROSS PARTS OF KS/OK/NRN TX" and "EXPECTATIONS FOR AN OUTBREAK OF TORNADOES ACROSS KS/OK/TX" have already proven accurate; a local TV station is reporting two deaths and major damage in El Reno, Oklahoma. I'll save for later the post that I was planning to finish up and publish tonight; I'm too busy watching the news.

Stay safe, y'all.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Running a Little Behind

I have houseguests this weekend, so instead of a thoughtfully composed blog post, I offer a quiet de-stresser: a video of "micro-origami" unfolding itself after being placed in water:

Check out the shadows of the rectangular "sculptures"; the paper's edges look smooth but the shadows are scalloped. How cool! I like the first piece and the one at the 4:20 mark the best, but the whole thing makes me want to go find some rice paper, a pair of very sharp scissors, and a bowl of water.

I found the video on BoingBoing but it looks like it's all over the net by now. Enjoy. :-)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Following Fred Phelps

The descriptions I've read of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) describe its congregation as composed "mostly" or "almost entirely" of pastor Fred Phelps' own relatives. I've wondered who makes up the remainder of the parishioners. I can kinda sorta understand that someone who was raised in the Phelps household/church might decide to stay with the family even when they're old enough to move out. After all, no matter how much you disagree with your family's beliefs, walking away from them permanently would be difficult (although some of Phelps' relatives, most famously his son Nate, have left). But how could WBC's hatemongering possibly attract someone who wasn't thoroughly indoctrinated into Phelps' fringe belief system from birth?

After reading this article, I'm still wondering. Steve Drain, an aspiring filmmaker who initially came to WBC to film a documentary, was prepared to hate Phelps, but instead came to see him as "the most misunderstood man alive," as "this humble, little old man" who spreads his "God Hates..." ("fags," soldiers, the US, Sweden, etc.) message "out of a heartfelt fear that if he doesn't do it, then the Lord is going to deal with him." Did Drain bother to watch Phelps as he was filming him? That ain't fear on Phelps' face; it's hate. Phelps has preached—with a grin—that he loves the thought of people going to hell and will be "watching you suffer, in all the nuances of your exquisite torment."†

According to the article, Drain came to admire Phelps and his family because they didn't omit parts of the Bible that they didn't like. The more he watched the footage he'd shot at WBC, the more he felt that he belonged there. Eventually he moved his family to Topeka, into a one-bedroom house near the church. He, his wife, and his 19-year-old daughter are now members of the church, the only ones not related to Fred Phelps by blood or marriage. His 7- and 9-year-old kids have not yet made "professions of faith"; Drain and his wife turned their oldest daughter "over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh" because she "offended the Lord" by having an online relationship with a man. Drain gave her some money and a car, and says he "wasn't trying to be cruel" by kicking her out, but he "can't be dragged down by somebody who has no interest in serving the Lord."

Drain's documentary "Hatemongers" (which contains language that is Not Suitable For Work) can be found in multiple chunks on Google Video. I've only watched the first couple of segments, and I'm glad that it's split into several short pieces because my tolerance for the Westboro wackos is limited. Possibly Drain actually explains his baffling sympathy for Phelps in one of the later segments. Possibly the May 21st "rapture" predictions from a completely separate group of fringe Christians are correct, and we heathens won't have to deal with Phelps and his ilk anymore after Saturday.

† At about the 06:10 mark in the linked video. Sorry, "deep linking" to a specific spot in a Google Video used to work, but no more, apparently.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Nothing To Fear

Evangelist Billy Graham has a syndicated daily column, although it currently consists of re-runs from 2008. (I doubt that Graham, now 92 years old and in poor health, does much writing any more.) Yesterday's column dealt with atheism, a topic that Graham has addressed several times previously. The version I found on was titled simply "Are There More Atheists Than There Used to Be?", but the Kansas City Star displayed the column under the header "Atheism can't answer life's questions," and ("Serving Alexandria, Pineville and Central Louisiana") used the title "Atheism ends in despair." (The latter two titles are paraphrases of comments that Graham made in the column.)

Statements like these make me wonder if Graham ever bothered to actually talk to any of these despairing atheists of whom he wrote. Of course we freethinkers are subject to all the same anxieties and misfortunes that befall everybody else, and—like everybody else, including Christians—some of us have to deal with serious mental health issues like clinical depression. I know lots of atheists, though, and I see no more despair in them than I do in believers. I'm reminded of the following story, which I've heard from multiple sources:
A woman who had labored against Christianity was on her death bed. Her unbelieving acquaintances, fearing that at the end she would renounce her infidelity, urged her to "hold on to the last." "Yes," she said, "I have no objection to holding on; but will you tell me what I am to hold on to?"
(This version is from "Studies in the Shorter Catechism" by the Rev. John H. Skilton, which appeared in the October 10, 1936 edition of The Presbyterian Guardian.)

Like any good skeptic, I'm willing to follow where the evidence leads. Can anybody can provide me with statistics on "despair" in atheists, or details of a conversation like the one described above that actually occurred between two non-believers, one of them dying? If not, I'd label the story as "apocryphal," the sort of parable that believers compose to assure themselves that there's some point to all the time, effort, and money that they invest in their faith.

Billy Graham's daughter Gigi has said of her father, "It’s not death that scares him; it’s the dying process." Most atheists, including myself, probably feel the same way, although for different reasons. Graham reportedly looks forward to "going home to heaven" to rejoin his late wife Ruth, while we non-believers expect that our "after-life" will be pretty much the same as our "before-life" other words, non-existence. Several Christian sects define "hell" not as "eternal torture" but as "eternal separation from God" (a doctrine known as annihilationism). If you regard your entire existence on Earth as preparation for your "real" life, then I guess that eternal separation from God would be quite a letdown...if you were able to experience it at all. For myself, I'm sure I'll be sad when I know that my life is nearing its end ("There is never enough time to do or say all the things that we would wish"), and I hope I won't be in too much pain or a burden to others, but beyond that, I'm not worried. Nothingness is nothing to fear.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Wanting to Believe

Nanni Moretti is an Italian movie director. I'm not familiar with his work but the length of his "awards" page on the Internet Movie Database suggests that he's fairly talented. He's also an atheist who says he's "very sorry [he's] not a believer." In a discussion of his new film "Habemus Papam" (Latin for "We Have a Pope," the phrase used to announce the election of a new pontiff), Moretti said, "When the pope says that the world needs a guide, the world needs someone who can provide love and understanding for all, the faithful in my film are full of enthusiasm and very pleased at the thought of this change."

Moretti's apology for being an atheist makes me wince a bit. Apologies are in order when our actions or negligence cause harm to others, not when others take offense at simple, factual statements like "I'm not a believer." Nonetheless, I'd agree that "the world needs" (or at least wants) "someone who can provide love and understanding for all." It doesn't matter how mature and wise and experienced you are; there are still things in this world, both natural and man-made, that'll scare the crap out of you. Whether it's a tornado barreling down on your house or your mortgage company rushing to foreclose, it's human nature to want someone to step in and set things right, and maybe give you a hug and bake you some cookies too.

Wanting doesn't make it so, of course. One of the co-directors of a recent study on belief in gods and an afterlife concluded that "religion is a common fact of human nature across different societies...It isn't just a quirky interest of a few, it's basic human nature," but another researcher said, "This project does not set out to prove God or gods exist," and acknowledged that "Just because we find it easier to think in a particular way does not mean that it is true in fact."

The Daily Mail article mentions that the study, which was conducted in 20 countries over a three-year period, cost £1.9 million (a bit over three million American dollars, according to Google), but didn't mention that the study was funded by the Templeton Foundation, a group that considers itself a "philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality." The group pledges to support "open-minded inquiry," but the fact that they're asking "Big Questions" about "human purpose" implies that they believe there is an ultimate purpose for humanity. Those who assume that something exists, whether it's the legendary city of Troy or Bigfoot, are bound to find something if they spend enough time and money, but is it the real thing or just a guy in an ape costume?

H/T to Jerry Coyne at "Why Evolution is True" for the link to University of Oxford's 2008 announcement of the study.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Taking Their Voice But Not Their Spirit

Christopher Hitchens is are we all, of course, but unlike those of us who have no idea when our end will come, Hitchens has suspicions about the timing of his, although he's doing what he can to stave it off. Of the many indignities that his cancer has imposed on him, the the loss of his voice seems to be the one that he minds the most. No big deal, you might think; he's a magnificent writer and he can still express himself that way, but I think I can identify in the tiniest degree with his statement that "Deprivation of the ability to speak is more like an attack of impotence, or the amputation of part of the personality." I can't even interact with my cat properly when I've got a mouthful of food; trying to shoo her off the dining room table with a wave of a hand instead of a stern "Get down!" just doesn't cut it. (Not that ordering her around works very well either, but loud noises at least have more impact on her than angry gestures.) When a sore throat led to a few days of laryngitis last winter, I tried communicating via an iPhone text-to-speech app, thinking it'd be more understandable than notes scribbled in my sloppy handwriting, but I gave up when I learned how much time and effort was required to produce even short phrases. Accomplishing the everyday tasks of life silently—answering the telephone, shopping, communicating with friends—and particularly the chores of trying to stay alive while battling a serious illness—keeping loved ones up-to-date, negotiating with insurance companies, dealing with healthcare providers—must be exhausting.

Film critic Roger Ebert, who has lost his voice permanently due to complications of thyroid cancer, wrote in his journal earlier this year:
When first coming to terms with the fact that I would never speak again, I filled my head with denial and coping strategies. I would use my computer voice, for example. And I do. But that is no way to participate in the flow of a conversation, and I realize so clearly now that conversations are all about the flow, the timing, the music.
I find it interesting that although Hitchens had "never been able to sing" and Ebert said the same thing about himself (back when he could still speak), they both associate speech and conversation with music.

Ebert reports that he uses social media and "writes more than ever," and I imagine that Hitchens writes as much as his condition and schedule allow. I look forward to many more years of blunt opinions and lyrical prose from both men even if I do have to read it rather than hear it. But as I read their words, I'll be hearing their voices in my head.

N.B. I'm trying to get into the habit of posting on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, but Blogger didn't consult me about scheduling the maintenance/downtime that occurred Thursday afternoon through this morning, so this post is a day late.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Feeling Guilty

No, I'm not hanging my head in shame because I've been neglecting my blog (I decided to switch from posting every day to 3 times a week), but because it seems increasingly likely that my beloved iPad was assembled by underpaid, overworked employees who may have been exposed to dust and hazardous chemicals in the process. Workers at Foxconn, a Taiwanese company that produces electronics for Apple and other brands, report that their salaries are less than what they were originally promised unless they work overtime (which is sometimes forced on them), and complain that the long hours and low pay leave them little opportunity to do anything in their off-hours besides commuting (for those not living in Foxconn dormitories), eating, and sleeping. Foxconn, which was in the news last year after a rash of suicides among employees, says that conditions have improved, counselors have been brought in to help the workers, and wages have been raised. However, SACOM ("China, Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour"), a non-profit organization devoted to improving conditions for workers, reports that "military-styled management is still in practice" and the work environment still needs lots of improvements.

In its "Supplier Responsibility 2011 Progress Report" (warning: PDF), Apple says that it was "disturbed and deeply saddened to learn that factory workers were taking their own lives at the Shenzhen facility of Foxconn" and it "will continue to work with Foxconn through the implementation of...programs" to better train hotline staff and counselors, maintain employees' mental health, and ensure effectiveness through monitoring. It's sad to hear that a company that's earned a reputation for making technology easy and fun to use could be even indirectly involved in such miserable treatment of workers. Apple's hardware already has a reputation for being expensive (a reputation that Apple justifies with the argument that its systems are more reliable and virus-resistant than competitors', although Apple has lowered its prices somewhat over the last few years to stay competitive). Would consumers pay more for computers and devices like iPhones if it meant better wages and working conditions for the people who assemble them? I'm definitely thrifty, but if I want the coolest new toys, I should be willing to pay enough to provide a decent salary to all the people involved in making them, from the designers who created the awesome interfaces to the folks who box up the final product.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Comforting Rationally

While researching an idea for a blog post, I came across a story about a little girl named Meredith whose beloved dog Abbey had died. Meredith was so concerned about what would happen to Abbey that she asked her mother if she could write to God and ask him to take special care of the dog. Meredith's mom helped her write the letter, address it to "God/Heaven," and mail it (with multiple stamps, because "it may take lots of stamps to get a letter all the way to heaven"). Some kind person at the US Postal Service read Meredith's letter and sent her a very sweet reply (signed "God, and the special angel who wrote this after God told her the words") and a copy of the book When A Pet Dies by Fred Rogers (of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" fame). According to, the story is true; it happened in San Antonio, Texas in 2006.

I sometimes envy believers when it comes to offering words of comfort to mourners. Even if prayer has no demonstrable effect on the world, the phrase "I'll pray for you" has an emotional effect on believers. Even prominent atheist Christopher Hitchens, who has esophageal cancer, has said that he appreciates the intent of those who pray for his recovery even though he urges believers not to "trouble deaf heaven with your bootless cries". If somebody (especially a child) asked me if the soul of someone they loved was in heaven, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for me to be blunt and say "no." I'm faithless, but I'm not heartless. I think the best I could manage would be something like "Wouldn't it be nice if s/he was in heaven?" But then I'd try to turn the conversation to "What would s/he do in heaven if s/he had the choice? What kinds of things did s/he like to do with you? I'm sorry s/he's gone, but I'm glad you two got to know each other." If I'd known the deceased myself, I'd try to share a happy or funny anecdote.

Offering condolences as a non-believer requires more work than just saying "I'll pray," but if "I'm so sorry for your loss" doesn't feel sufficient, there are ways to comfort without invoking religion. Sadly, as I and my family and acquaintances get older, I'm going to have all too many opportunities to practice this skill.

H/T to Michael Josephson, Founder of Josephson Institute

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Coming and Going to Jail

I've written before about the very active and vocal Atheists of Florida group. Another one of their members has run afoul of the law and made the news precisely because she was a bit too vocal:
  • Orlando Sentinel: Report: Atheist official accused of simulating sex in presence of child. "The Lakeland Ledger is reporting that the legal coordinator of the Atheists of Florida is accused of simulating a sex act in the presence of a child."
  • The Lakeland Ledger: Atheist Official Wachs Charged With Simulating Sex Act. "The Atheists of Florida's legal coordinator was charged Sunday with simulating a sex act in the presence of a 10-year-old boy."
  • OfficialWire: Atheist Accused Of Making Sex Noises. "A Florida atheist activist is in jail for faking the sounds of a sex act in the presence of her neighbor and his 10-year-old son, authorities say."
  • FOX 35 Orlando: Atheist official arrested for sex act. "The Atheists of Florida's legal coordinator was in police custody Wednesday after being arrested and charged with simulating a sex act in the presence of a 10-year-old boy."
  • Sun-Sentinel: Woman, an atheist, charged with simulating sex act. "The Atheists of Florida's legal coordinator, Ellenbeth Wachs, was charged Sunday with simulating a sex act in the presence of a 10-year-old boy. She is accused of making extremely loud noises from inside her home, pretending as if she were having sex while neighbors overheard, reports The Ledger in Lakeland."
  • FOX 13 Tampa Bay: Atheist arrested for simulating sex act. "The legal affairs coordinator for the Atheists of Florida was arrested and charged with simulating a sex act in the presence of a 10-year-old boy."
How is Ms. Wachs' atheism relevant to what she's alleged to have done? I thought maybe my Yahoo news alert was only finding articles with headlines that included the word "atheist," so I tried googling "wachs arrested sex act." Of the first 20 results, only 2 of the web page titles/article headlines didn't identify Ms. Wachs as an atheist, and one of those was a blog post, not an actual news article.

According to yet another news article,† Ms. Wachs isn't at all popular with her neighbors and has allegedly remarked that Christians and Christian holidays are "stupid." Maybe the complaining neighbor was just upset that she was screaming "Oh John!" and not "Oh God!"

† The "Mugshot Round Up" images that appear on this web page are not photographs of Ms. Wachs.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Remembering One, Remembering Millions

A friend invited me to a showing of the documentary "Inside Hana's Suitcase" on Sunday. The film is about a young Jewish girl named Hana Brady who perished in the Holocaust, Hana's older brother George who survived and now lives in Canada, and Fumiko Ishioka, the executive director of the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center. In 2000, Fumiko visited the museum at the Auschwitz concentration camp, and asked if some of the museum's objects that had belonged to children could be loaned to the Tokyo center. She was sent several items, including a suitcase labeled with Hana's name, date of birth, and the German word for "orphan." Fumiko was curious about the girl who'd owned the suitcase and began researching Hana's story, eventually finding the surviving brother George. Fumiko's search and her interactions with George Brady led to news stories, documentaries, a play, a web site, and a best-selling book, Hana's Suitcase, that would eventually be translated into dozens of languages. Were it not for an old suitcase, an average little girl who suffered what was an all-too-typical fate for Jews at the height of the Nazi regime would have been forgotten by everyone except those few who knew her personally and managed to survive the war.

Only...the suitcase wasn't Hana's. That suitcase, along with others like it, was destroyed in 1984 in a fire that was deliberately set at an English warehouse that held artifacts being prepared for an exhibit. The suitcase that Fumiko received was a replica of Hana's. The management at the Auschwitz museum had decided to recreate Hana's suitcase because so few possessions of children had survived the Holocaust, and because a clear photograph of the original suitcase was available—a photo taken by a childhood friend of Hana's who had seen the original in 1962 while touring Auschwitz. Fumiko didn't know that the suitcase she'd received was a replica, and Hana's family didn't spot the minor differences between the replica and the 1962 photograph until after they'd returned from Japan, where they'd met Fumiko and viewed what they thought was one of Hana's possessions.

Interacting with an object that belonged to someone who's departed from life but not our memories or our hearts can be a powerful experience. I drink tea from one of my late grandmother's mugs, one I remember her using. I sleep under a quilt that was hand-sewn by my great-grandmother. How would it feel to learn that the original mug or quilt had been lost and the ones I use actually came from a secondhand store or a stranger's garage sale? Disappointing, of course, but the older I grow, and the harder it becomes to organize and store and preserve all the things I've accumulated, the more I realize that what's really precious to me is not "stuff," but the ideas and memories that the stuff provokes. If the mug isn't really Grandma's, well, that's OK. It keeps the memories of Grandma alive for me.

"Disappointment" is likely an inadequate word to express what George, his family, and Fumiko felt when they learned that "Hana's suitcase" was just a replica. Given the shortness of Hana's life and the tragedy of its ending, any object that she'd owned would have been precious to them, but they realized that if it weren't for the loss of the original suitcase, Hana's story would probably have faded into obscurity. I don't know if "happy accident" is an appropriate term for these circumstances, but I'm grateful that I got to learn about Hana.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Clawing Her Way Up

I really must stop proofreading these posts by reading them aloud to myself. My cat keeps thinking that I'm talking to her, and takes that as a signal that it's OK to jump into my lap. Which wouldn't be so bad, except that she doesn't always judge the height of my chair accurately, and I never had her declawed. If only I were wearing some pants right now...

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Inspiring Words, For a Price

While researching an idea for a potential blog post, I came across, which is intended for "pastors who want to keep up with current speaking trends." iStockSermons lets you search for sermons based on keywords such as "addiction," "balance," "celebration," and the like. Each "complete creative sermon package" includes an MP3 (audio) file of the sermon, a transcript of the sermon, and artwork (logos "in illustrator or photoshop" and JPG formats). Some packages also include "extras" like videos, additional notes, or sermons that were written but not delivered. The prices for the packages currently available on the site (which each contain at least 3 and as many as 7 sermons) range from $149 to $399. I thought at first that the site was fairly new, but the company's brochure (warning: PDF) has a copyright date of 2009. They don't have much to choose from—only 9 sermon packages—so if you need a sermon on "building campaigns" or "giving," for example, you'll have to write it yourself or look elsewhere. iStockSermons isn't the only web site that offers sermons to download, but of those that seem intended for pastors looking for creative help, iStockSermons seems to offer the most complete and polished materials.

Not everybody who's "called to the ministry" is a talented writer, I'm sure. Even for those who do write well, composing an original and stimulating sermon every week must be tough, especially with all the other stuff pastors are expected to do (counseling, administrative duties, etc.). It must be a relief to know that when inspiration fails, there's someone to turn to, but this raises interesting questions. If a pastor does buy and download one of the "creative sermon packages," does s/he pay for it personally, or does it come out of the church's budget? (Either way, the money originally came out of the parishioners' pockets.) Does the pastor indicate somehow that someone else wrote the sermon? Or is this more like Sandra Lee's "Semi-Homemade Cooking" where you add your own touches to prepackaged items and pass the result off as your own creation?†

If pastors are open about the source of their sermons and/or if this practice is as common and acceptable as purchasing a Vacation Bible School (VBS) kit, that's fine, but to this outsider, "buying a sermon" sounds an awful lot like "buying a term paper."

† Polenta (known in these parts as "cornmeal mush" before it got all uppity and started appearing in tubes at the grocery store) and white chocolate, while both very tasty in their own right, are ingredients that really should not appear in the same recipe. Ick.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Turning A Skeptic Into A Believer

Don't you just love targeted advertising?

If I really wanted to be snarky, I would point out that the photo of the "believer" is much lighter/brighter than that of the "skeptic." Certain publications have come under fire for doing that kind of thing in the past. But I don't want to be snarky. Nope, not me.

(If you have a Yahoo account and would like to receive alerts on "atheism" or any other subject that interests you, sign into Yahoo then click here to set up keyword-based alerts. If you don't have a Yahoo account, you can create one by clicking the "Create New Account" button near the bottom of the "sign in" page.)