Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Interesting Things

Sometimes when I am crawling through the tubes of the interwebs I encounter an article that I think would be great for this blog. One course of action would be to post that article onto the blog. An entirely different, and perfectly valid, course of action is to leave that particular tab open until there is time to post the article later. This way I will have time to think of insightful and interesting commentary to go along with the post.

On what might be a slightly related note, the top of my current browser window is a jammed full of tiny unreadable tabs. So now I'm going to dump on give you these wonderful and interesting links. Here we go:

Sometimes People Hate Science:

Here is a long, insane video on why the earth is not rotating on its axis. Fortunately the video is accompanied by a short summary of the highlights. The summary of the summary is that a guy made a 30 minute video to explain how the earth is not actually rotating on its axis. This video was made in order to prove that the bible is accurate when it states "the earth is absolutely not moving." (citation needed . . .)

This video is a particularly extreme example of someone trying to defend religion from the evil of science. There's a sad irony in these attempts, as they are founded in a depressing lack of faith and divinity. A very smart and scientifically savvy Christian I know summarized the way anti-science Christians undermine their own faith with these arguments with a simple quote:
God is not afraid of science
Separate from the religious motivation for the video, the video itself raises a cool science question: how do we know the earth is rotating on its axis? I mean, we can kind of see it from outer space, or we can see that other planets are rotating and assume that earth is rotating as well. But, in space, all motion is relative. Is it possible that the earth is perfectly still in space and everything else in the universe is spinning around use in a zany way, making it appear that the earth is rotating? While the relative nature of motion is a fun though experiment, the answer is still no. We can actually measure the earth's rotation very simply using something called Foucault Pendulum. Click the link, it's cool stuff.

It Really is about Keeping Women in the Kitchen

This is a great short article arguing that birth control is one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century. The basic notion is that without reliable birth control women were always second class citizens, and men could claim that it was a requirement of biology. In fact, men still claim this, even with reliable birth control. The article argues that the hard line against birth control is a recognition that it allows women to break the shackles of a sexist society. Now, we're seeing a backlash against contraception itself by organization steeped in traditional male authority, like the Catholic Church.

The point that birth control may be the most important invention of the 20th century, and yet it's something that the reader (and myself) has never seen on a list of great invention of the 20th century is fascinating. Birth control has fundamentally changed a social dynamic that has existed as long as humans. What we're seeing now in politics (and yes, I include the debate over choice and abortion) is the fight over the dramatic social shift that comes from gender equality.

Humor Break

Politics is depressing. Watch these amazing cat gifs for a break.

Romney As Sociopath?

Cruelty to animals is something that connects on an emotional level in a way that cruelty to humans often does not. It's why the story about Romney's family dog, Seamus, is the kind of story that sticks. It is likely to stick to Romney as an indication of his uncaring nature, even more than his quote about not caring about the very poor (because they already have a safety net).

The summary is that when his family moved, he put the dog in a carrier and strapped it to the roof of the car. At some point during the drive the dog shat itself. Romney hosed it off at a rest stop and kept going. Ever practical. It demonstrates a certain heartlessness that fits with the image of Romney as a rich calculating machine. There are indications that this story will continue to linger:

Here is a humorous web video which pokes at the issue.

Gingrich even used the issue in one of his ads.

Oh, Santorum . . .

You didn't think you were going to get out of this link dump post without a healthy dose of Santorum did you? It feels like he spews crazy faster than even the internet can keep up. Here's the small sampling that ended up on my tab bar:

Rick Santorum needs to be President to counter the influence of Satan. Even more than the Satan stuff though, this article points out a Santorum quote that could cause more damage to his campaign than any of the crazy that he's spewed out:
of course we look at the shape of mainline Protestantism in this country and it is in shambles, it is gone from the world of Christianity as I see it.
When your run for President relies entirely on turnout among protestant evangelicals, in might not be a good idea to say that they aren't Christians .. .

Santorum may want to remove the plank from his own eye before worrying about the splinters in the eyes of American Protestants, seeing as review of tax returns has revealed that he gives a minuscule fraction of his significant income to charity. Many people would say that a foundation of Christian belief is charitable donation, especially when churches count as charities for such giving (Which I believe represents a huge part of Romney's significant giving).

Of course we know that being the "Christian" candidate in today's politics isn't about being kind to others, forgiveness, or giving. It's about trying to turn the clock back to a time before the United States provided any services or legal protections to anyone. So Santorum is putting forward his conservative chops by attacking that scourge upon humanity: public education. If you don't have the stomach for the whole article, here's the money quote:
"Yes, the government can help, but the idea that the federal government should be running schools, frankly much less that the state government should be running schools, is anachronistic."

(Aside from schools for the children of military personnel, the federal government does not actually operate schools. Most U.S. schools are supported primarily by state or local funding, or a combination of the two.)

Santorum said the public education system was an artifact of the Industrial Revolution, "when people came off the farms where they did home school or had a little neighborhood school, and into these big factories … called public schools."
Not as Conservative as It Seems

Conservatives make a lot of noise in our society. The noise itself can be fairly frightening, but it's important to remember that polls continually demonstrate that the populace is not nearly as stupid or conservative as the echo chamber makes it seem. Unfortunately, the importance of voting turn out, and the primary system, tend to make politicians more extreme than the generally populace. A recent poll in Virginia indicates once again, that where the state government is doing crazy things, the people who live there are far more moderate in their positions on these issues.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Fantasy Settings and the Roman World

I've been thinking a bit recently about why fantasy novels are set in medieval worlds. Or even if they're not properly fantasy, if we want a story told about times before modernity, it always goes to the tales of knights and castles and kingdoms. I think there's fascinating ideas out there from even earlier, of the Roman Republic and the Athenian philosopher-kings, and I've written up a few points about what would make a story essentially classical instead of medieval: a necessary task if we're leaving the real timeline.

* Urban vs. rural: I think this is an element that makes things particularly compelling. The castle is replaced by the polis for affairs of state. I think the results of this is a much larger political universe: medievalist fantasy usually focuses on the conflicts between the king and the nobles, or the various squabbles of competing petty warlords. There's a lot more to deal with if you're in charge of a city - fully capable political classes to contest authority, and powerful nonpolitical actors: guilds, mobs, organized crime, artists, beggars, merchants. And of course, those things are all interesting to explore beyond political struggles - there are more people doing more different things in a city than in a pastoral setting, where you're either a knight or a farmer. Maybe an innkeeper.

* Power of the state: There's a bit of a paradox here - the classical ruler is more checked by rival powers in the city, but simultaneously much more potential authority, should he dominate those elements. Medieval kingships tended to be low-stakes affairs, and royalty was its own prize. The greater organization of a Roman-style state opens up a lot more avenues for characters to interact with the state, both successfully or otherwise. Or attempt to interact with the populace, should they be rulers themselves.

* Range and diversity: I think in a classical setting, your characters are much more able to travel. A medieval affair tends to concern itself in one realm, which is fairly homogenous. Rome encompassed Egypt and England alike, and you are able to regularly mix things up with different cultures, religions, or powers running across things. You have cosmopolitan characters able to seek these things out, too, and more places to flee. At the same time, there's much more of a continuum between insiders and outsiders. A foreigner is not nearly as obvious.

*Monarchy vs. republic: A medieval setting almost never considers the idea that maybe people shouldn't be ruled by a king. A classical setting can really take up this argument, all the more urgent if the choices are a republic or an empire. Warlords can aspire to more power by claiming the imperium, and dissidents can do more than support the just and fair younger brother of the king. You get to inject very potent, resonant idealisms into a conflict over power.

*Barbarians at the gates: Always a loaded question, I think in a classical setting you can explore more the line between civilization and barbarism - and at the same time, undermine that distinction. As above, it's not an insular society like so many medieval kingdoms, instead you have a very distinct line that separates the Romans from the Germans, which characters are going to lean on. It's also a way to empower emperor-types, who are going to win prestige by turning back the hordes, and use fear of same to command their authority. Their supporters will be more complex than the toadies of the evil king.

*Thinkers: more than plotters, you get to have characters who are philosophers, and able to influence events with ideas. With consequences as disastrous as anything else, of course, as Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle were able to witness.

*Atmospherics: Here's where we get the robes-for-chain mail swap, but some of this is interesting in its own right. You get to move away from the colder north lands to the lush Mediterranean, and from wood and stone to marble. Villas. You can play a lot with tone here.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Does anyone really think this?

Seriously? Who are these men who spend their time bitching about being men in a male dominated society?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Making Me Happy this Week

This blog has been a little bit on the grim side, all told. So I wanted to change the tone.

Adele won pretty much all the Grammys. That's the best thing to happen in pop music since the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan.

Sadism and Parenthood.

So, this has been tearing its way across the Internet for a while. I really didn't want to watch the video, but since I've committed to writing this post, I obviously have to.

This is seriously messed up. You know what's not a tool of parenting? Firearms. Discharging a gun and saying "this is what you deserve" is not something you do around people you love, it's what you do when you're a sociopath. It's certainly not a valid response to a kid whining about chores on Facebook. Whining kids are annoying, I'm sure. I get that. But guns are designed to kill people. Kill animals. Kill intruders. Eliminate threats. Whatever your stance is on gun control, the point is that guns aren't made to fix things. They're made to destroy things. Invoking your power to use an implement of raw destruction when angry is terrifying. “This right here is my .45,” he says, before unloading nine bullets into a laptop. Nine bullets.

But honestly, this guy is the least of my problems. Some people are crazy, I can deal with that. What bothers me is that the poll attached to the article has over 2/3s of voters supporting him. Unscientific polling or not, I'm guessing that there's probably a real majority position there. And the reason for it, as is increasingly dominant in American culture, is one of sadism: those who we dislike are to be neither corrected, convinced or reformed, nor contained, isolated, and ignored. They are to suffer. And so, we get to read the supportive commenters, who say that bratty kids deserve pain, humiliation, and suffering.

"[M]aybe he should have affixed a pic of "lil precious" to the laptop b4 he'd emptied the clip in it!" adds the most egregious of them. Others wish she had been physically struck along with threatened, and more just congratulate their conquering hero, who decided to use his gun to teach his daughter a lesson about "respect."

The other examples of the sadist culture are easy to find. Those cheering, on national talk shows, Marines who urinated on dead Afghani soldiers: so quickly can inalienable human dignity be discarded. Those who cheered at Rick Perry's execution hit list, or at Ron Paul's calls for the poor and sick to be left to die. Or Liz Trotta, in the post below by Agis, who supports rape against women who dare to join the military. The point isn't about who the person is on the other side, whether they're as heroic as female combat soldiers, as ordinary as whiny teenagers, or as loathsome as murderers and enemy soldiers. The point is that we, as a society, are finding moments of glee in our ability to inflict pain on these people, and it is this essential element that denatures our claim to do justice in the world and turns us into cruel tyrants seeking revenge.

Monday, February 13, 2012

"Honey" Sauce

I admit it, I occasionally go to KFC. I do this because KFC food is amazing (and because I steeply discount future utility). I make no excuses.

Anyone who has ever been to KFC or talked to a person who has been to KFC knows that their biscuits are delicious. They are fried butter masquerading as baked dough. When I have had these little dumplings of happiness in the past, I have put honey on them instead of butter. It was a tiny healthy decision inside the Russian nesting dolls of unhealthy decisions that is KFC.

However, today, it was pointed out to me that I have been putting "Honey" sauce on my biscuits, not honey:

My phone's camera resolution is low, but the pocket actually lists the ingredients for KFC "Honey" sauce. They are as follows:

Ingredients: High fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, sugar, honey, fructose, less than 2% coloring etc.
This ingredient list is so absurd as to be comical. It's the kind of ingredients a writer would dream up for an SNL fake commercial about fast food. Honey is an alternative sweetener to sugar! Some type of sugar is the first three ingredients before honey!

When food, in particular fast food, is regulated, there is usually an outcry of some sort. But, I feel that labeling is an important first step. Many people claim that mandating label changes or posting of nutritional information doesn't make any difference. But if it really makes no difference, than KFC would label it's "Honey" sauce what it is: honey flavored syrup.

UPDATE: there is a hilarious South Park episode about KFC - watch here.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

This is the worst thing

There is an amazing bevy of conservative commentators in the United States who say really messed up stuff. So it's really something when I come across something that is so horrible, so shockingly callous, as to leave me truly stunned.

Liz Trotta, from Fox News (where else), has really set a new standard. The executive summary of her comments is that women in the United States military should expect to get raped by their fellow soldiers, and spending money on trying to prevent these rapes is the epitome of government waste. If that upsets you as much as it should, be warned, video and quotes to follow:

TROTTA: ...just a few weeks ago, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta commented on a new Pentagon report on sexual abuse in the military. I think they have actually discovered there is a difference between men and women. And the sexual abuse report says that there has been, since 2006, a 64% increase in violent sexual assaults. Now, what did they expect? These people are in close contact, the whole airing of this issue has never been done by Congress, it's strictly been a question of pressure from the feminist.

And the feminists have also directed them, really, to spend a lot of money. They have sexual counselors all over the place, victims' advocates, sexual response coordinators. Let me just read something to you from McClatchy Newspapers about how much this position on extreme feminism is costing us. "The budget for the Defense Department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office leapt from $5 million in fiscal 2005 to more than $23 million in fiscal 2010. Total Defense Department spending on sexual assault prevention and related efforts now exceeds $113 million annually." That's from McClatchy Newspapers.

So, you have this whole bureaucracy upon bureaucracy being built up with all kinds of levels of people to support women in the military who are now being raped too much.

SHAWN: Well, many would say that they need to be protected, and there are these sexual programs, abuse programs, are necessary --

TROTTA: That's funny, I thought the mission of the Army, and the Navy, and four services was to defend and protect us, not the people who were fighting the war.
It's hard to muster any kind of response to this. After calming down slightly, and trying to imagine a place where this kind of 'commentary' needs any response at all, I would think that if one was upset about needing to spend millions to prevent sexual assault within our military that person would be upset that people are getting raped and harassed in the first place.

Also, Fox News is a joke. The next time anyone tries to suggest that it's anything anyone should ever watch I'm going to send them this clip.

Friday, February 10, 2012


When is a law which received 415 votes in the House in 2005, and was signed by George W. Bush not conservative enough?

The even shorter version of the summary linked to above, is that the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee all voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. You see, the law treats homosexuals equally and is too soft on immigrants. Also, we spend too much money on it. "It" being preventing violence against women, of course.

I'd like to blame this on election year politics. I can't tell if that would make it better or worse.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Brain on rape.

Look, I get it. You trust your brain. I trust my brain. Our brains have served us well in our lives. Wherever we are, we wouldn't be there without our brains. Our brains understand things. When an object is coming toward our head, our brain knows to duck, often before we do! Our brain understands subtle body language and facial expressions that I would never notice. But, sometimes we need to show our brain who's boss. We need to say "no brain, I know you think it's like that, but it's not, it's just not." Sometimes, our brain is so used to being right that it thinks it's better than facts.

For instance, my brain thinks sex is about sex. This is so simple, that my brain is really convinced it's correct on this one. So when my brain hears about a rape, it thinks "that guy must have really wanted to have sex with her." Wrong brain! You see, my brain is not a rapist (thankfully), and so it doesn't really understand how rape works, or why it happens. So my brain might think, maybe that rape wouldn't happen if the victim hadn't been so sexy looking. Because, (my brain figures) then the rapist wouldn't wanted to have sex with her so badly. But, wow, just wow, brain, that's all kinds of wrong. It's factually incorrect. So, sometimes, we have to tell our brain to take a backseat. Us, as a society, we have to take charge, and use facts to over-ride our brain. It doesn't always work, and it's certainly not easy. But in policy and public discourse, it's essential.

Take, for example, the fact that someday I am going to die. Both my brain and I agree on this fact. We, however, disagree on the method of my death. I'm fairly certain that I will die of heart disease, stroke or maybe a car crash someplace near my home. My brain on the other hand is pretty sure I will die in an airplane crash, an armed robbery or from a spider hidden in my shoe. I told you before, sometimes my brain is an idiot. So when a plane goes through some turbulence, my brain makes sure that I'm good and scared, because I'M IN A FLYING TUBE OF METAL! Yet at the same time, my brain will let me shovel bacon cheeseburgers into my mouth like they're tic tacs, without so much as a tiny bit of adrenaline. What's up with that brain? And, really, this isn't a big deal. I'm capable of making decisions in my life. It requires work, and effort, and knowledge, and ordering salad instead of fries (and recognizing that an iceberg lettuce salad with thousand island dressing isn't much better than fries). The real problem emerges when we all start talking together, and making decisions together, as a society and a culture.

You see, it's fine for me to grab the armrest of an airplane with a deathgrip every time the airplane I'm in adjusts its flaps, but if I insist that billions of dollars be shifted from heart disease research into increased airplane safety, well, that's not fine. That's not OK brain! It would result in more people dying, probably me among them.

So, on rape. I get it. Guys, and people closely related to guys, are scared that AT ANY MOMENT some slutty lady will seduce him and then, upon realizing that other people will judge her for voluntarily having sex, accuse him of rape. Then his life will be over. Sure, it's a pretty scary scenario. Your word against hers. It would also be pretty scary to fall from the sky in a giant metal tube. And, here's the thing, the trump card your brain can always play: It does happen! It happens. So no matter what kind of facts we throw at our brain, it can always point this out. But, it's a brain trick. The fact that something is technically possible, doesn't really do us any good in addressing whatever it is we should be addressing.

The facts on the issues of rape are clear. But so many people's brains don't like them. Rapists don't rape for sex. They rape as part of violence, dominance and power. They choose victims based on opportunity. Does that mean they sometimes pick victims who are dressed provocatively? Yes. But it is because the provocative dress or behavior provides an opportunity, not because they it inspires the rapist to want to have sex with that person. Our brains might not get it, but it's how it works. Often, this opportunity is increased because society will assume that that person was "asking for it." The person will know society will assume this. The person will be less likely to report the rapist. Because of us. Our brains' belief that rape is about sex actively empowers rapists to get away with rape. Bad brain! So, we must have the ability to look at reality, and say 'no, brain, that's not right."

Even if we wanted to lower the number of false rape accusations. Lets just pretend that is our priority. Then why are we attacking women for slutty behavior? Aren't those attacks *the exact reason why we think women make up rape accusations*? So now our brain has us both empowering rapists AND incentivising women to accuse innocent young men of rape. After all, if they don't accuse the first guy of rape, then we will use the fact she slept with that first guy so willingly as an example of how she's being stupid by increasing her risk of being raped, because she's a slut.

Our brain says rape is about sex, and then says that therefore sluttiness leads to rape, which results in us empowering rapists to get away with it, AND we creating the very environment that causes our brain to imagine that women are out there "crying rape" all the time. (Guess what brain? They're not! Repeated studies show that false rape accusations occur at the same rate as false accusations for other crimes.)

Back to the airplane analogy. Our rape situation is even worse than redirecting all our heart disease money to excessive airplane safety. It's more like redirecting all our heart disease money to making airplane flaps not make that scary noise. More people will die of heart disease, and, at the same time, just as many airplanes will crash. Because our brain doesn't understand why airplanes crash. Our brain is stupid when it comes to airplanes! We have to spend time to learn about airplanes before we know how they work!

Intuition serves us well in many areas of our lives. Sexual assault is not one of them (neither is airplanes). So, yeah. It takes a lot of work and a lot of knowledge to tell our brains to shut up.

Sexual assault is very real. Somehow this is true despite the fact that we have been slut shaming for quite awhile. So it's time we look at the facts, and tell our brains who's boss.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Dr. Pepper is delicious

Dr. Pepper is delicious. Diet Dr. Pepper is the best tasting diet pop ever. Unfortunately, the owners of Dr. Pepper decided that running ads that say "diet Dr. Pepper is delicious, you should drink it because it tastes good," is too easy. Instead, they created a new product called Dr. Pepper 10. At first the ads are offensive. Then they are stupid. Then, they are so stupid they become offensive in an entirely new way.

Now I am forced to drink the slightly less delicious root beer. My life is hard. Here is a comic to provide some relief from our difficult lives: