Promises

I arrived home from Freethought Festival 2012 (there will be a Freethought Festival 2013 in April of next year, so mark your calendars now) with a case of impostor syndrome, a big to-do list, and a migraine. I came back to an already existing list, a bunch of work to catch up on, and a “someone else’s emergency” dropped squarely in my lap.

So, while I have lots to say about the convention and a bunch of thinking to process out here where it might do someone else some good, today is not the day for that. Instead, you get one of my favorite songs about disengagement. Okay, it’s the only song I can think of about disengagement that I like. Still, I love this song even when I’m not overcommitted.

Everybody wants charm and a smile and a promise.

Now, back to work.

Say, “Thank You”

There I was, standing in the student union of the University of Wisconsin Madison, in front of someone I won’t mention yet, next to PZ. On the other side of PZ were Richard, Matt, and Brianne. JT should have been there, but he’d already left when someone got the bright (obvious) idea to put all the FtB bloggers together and take a picture. As punishment, JT will have some interesting picture of himself composited into the group.

In front of me, surreally, were half a dozen people with camera phones and a small crowd gathered to watch the proceedings. [Read more...]

Ask the Experts

We frequently ask one another what we can do to encourage kids’ interest in science. One of the people submitting questions for my interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson (okay, it was my husband) would like me to ask him. And we generally don’t have a shortage of opinions on the topic, either.

Desiree Schell had a somewhat different take on the topic for LogiCon. She put together a panel of kids and asked them. Marie Claire Shanahan reported on the results, some of which confound our expectations.

This theme of not giving students what they need was carried over into a discussion of role models. A physicist in the audience asked the students what people like him could do to be better role models for young people in science. It’s a common solution proposed for encouraging and maintaining student interest: provide more and better role models. All four panelists, though talkative and eloquent, were silent. They looked at each other, raised their eyebrows, and shrugged their shoulders. Desiree rephrased the question asking them who their role models are and why they are good role models. Not surprisingly the ones they listed where people in their lives, mostly family members and teachers. The justifications, though, were a little more surprising and explained their confused silence. The students didn’t focus at all on the what the role models were like, other than they should be generally nice people. It wasn’t about the role models; it was about what the role models did for the kids. Good role models challenged them just enough. They asked good questions, and most importantly, let the kids find out the answers. Each student repeated essentially the same answer. Role models should encourage and inspire questions and exploration, that’s all. The kids themselves need to do everything else. There were no comments about having role models that were like the students or role models who broke stereotypes or role models who had overcome challenges and no indication that they really wanted to learn from someone else’s experiences. There was instead a lot of reinforcement that the process of role modelling isn’t modelling at all, it’s all about what the kids get to do and it’s really easy to forget that. Alex said it clearly, “You just want to prepare many many paths for students and let them take them.”

It sounds like it was an interesting panel. I don’t know that I would take everything the kids had to say at precisely face value (there’s a reason we do blinded studies on topics), but their voices are an important part of the discussion, particularly where they challenge us. Find out what else they had to say.

Saturday Storytime: The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees

E. Lily Yu is 22 years old. She’s getting ready to graduate from college. She also just had one of her handful of published short stories nominated for a Hugo Award and was nominated for the Campbell Award for best new writer. It’s apparently been quite the year.

It took two weeks to complete the nurseries with their paper mobiles, and then another month to reconstruct the Great Library and fill the pigeonholes with what the oldest cartographers could remember of their lost maps. Their comings and goings did not go unnoticed. An ambassador from the beehive arrived with an ultimatum and was promptly executed; her wings were made into stained-glass windows for the council chamber, and her stinger was returned to the hive in a paper envelope. The second ambassador came with altered attitude and a proposal to divide the bees’ kingdom evenly between the two governments, retaining pollen and water rights for the bees—”as an acknowledgment of the preexisting claims of a free people to the natural resources of a common territory,” she hummed.

The wasps of the council were gracious and only divested the envoy of her sting. She survived just long enough to deliver her account to the hive.

The third ambassador arrived with a ball of wax on the tip of her stinger and was better received.

“You understand, we are not refugees applying for recognition of a token territorial sovereignty,” the foundress said, as attendants served them nectars in paper horns, “nor are we negotiating with you as equal states. Those were the assumptions of your late predecessors. They were mistaken.”

“I trust I will do better,” the diplomat said stiffly. She was older than the others, and the hairs of her thorax were sparse and faded.

“I do hope so.”

“Unlike them, I have complete authority to speak for the hive. You have propositions for us; that is clear enough. We are prepared to listen.”

“Oh, good.” The foundress drained her horn and took another. “Yours is an old and highly cultured society, despite the indolence of your ruler, which we understand to be a racial rather than personal proclivity. You have laws, and traditional dances, and mathematicians, and principles, which of course we do respect.”

“Your terms, please.”

Keep reading.

Lessons in Evidence, Sexism Edition

Hayley Stevens recently posted at SheThought on the kinds of crap many young, female skeptics get to deal with. You know the sort of thing:

When you share your critical thoughts with others, when you voice your opinion and speak your mind do not be under the assumption that it is okay to do this because this is attention seeking behavior and others will see through your wicked attempt at gaining an ego boost for yourself. By even contemplating writing your thoughts on your blog you are clearly attempting to make a name for yourself and make subjects all about you. Any negative reaction you receive as a result of sharing your thoughts is only deserved and you only have yourself to blame for being young, female and daring to be vocal.

It took all of four comments for her to get this in response:

Evidence? [Read more...]

Atheists Talk: Richard Fortey on Evolution’s Survivors

“Living fossil” is a term that might well have been calculated to drive evolutionary biologists insane. Evolution has stopped for no organism on Earth–except those that have gone extinct. However, some plants and animals have proved resilient enough that they still live on our planet in roughly the same forms they wore millions of years ago.

Richard Fortey is a distinguished writer and a BBC presenter. He is also a palaeontologist who is fascinated by the idea of seeing ancient history in our modern world. His latest book, Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind (in the UK, Survivors: The Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind) details and communicates that fascination, as does the BBC series Survivors: Nature’s Indestructible Creatures, which Fortey presented.

This Sunday, join us on Atheists Talk as Richard Fortey shares that fascination with us.

Related Links:

Listen to AM 950 KTNF this Sunday at 9 a.m. Central to hear Atheists Talk, produced by Minnesota Atheists. Stream live online. Call in to the studio at 952-946-6205, or send an e-mail to [email protected] during the live show. If you miss the live show, listen to the podcast later.

Why I Like Daniel Craig

I was in the theater watching Tomb Raider. The second shower scene started. I groaned. One hadn’t been enough?

Then the camera revealed to us that the dripping would-be object of lust was Daniel Craig instead of Angelina Jolie again, and I laughed. The movie knew what it was and what it had come from, but it wasn’t afraid to play with it. That alone made the movie worth the painful father-daughter scene and Jolie’s magic, jiggle-free bra.

I was reminded of that moment in the theater when I saw this. [Read more...]

Who Wants to Interview Neil deGrasse Tyson?

Actually, that’s a bit of a trick question. I’m interviewing Neil on Monday (air date to be determined) about his new book, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier.

Now that NASA has put human space flight effectively on hold—with a five- or possibly ten-year delay until the next launch of astronauts from U.S. soil—Tyson’s views on the future of space travel and America’s role in that future are especially timely and urgent. This book represents the best of Tyson’s commentary, including a candid new introductory essay on NASA and partisan politics, giving us an eye-opening manifesto on the importance of space exploration for America’s economy, security, and morale. Thanks to Tyson’s fresh voice and trademark humor, his insights are as delightful as they are provocative, on topics that range from the missteps that shaped our recent history of space travel to how aliens, if they existed, might go about finding us.

I’m reading the book, so I can handle questions about that. Feel free to add questions if you’re particularly interested in some part of the U.S. space program, however.

Mostly, though, the number of media appearances Neil does makes me curious. If you had the chance to sit down and talk with him for an hour, what would you ask him? What do you want to know (keep it appropriate for radio, Neil fans) that you haven’t heard a million other interviews?

We See a Different Frontier

Many of the themes of classic science fiction were colonial. Some were explicitly so, with new planets being settled by human pioneers and the kinks of first contact with sentient aliens being worked out–or not. Others were less straightforward, with minds and bodies falling under the control of…well, just about anything.

What was generally missing in these depictions, however:

Much widely distributed science fiction and fantasy is written by American and other Anglophone authors, and treats subjects close to the hearts of straight, white, English-speaking men. There’s nothing wrong with this sci-fi itself—we love lots of it—but there’s clearly something missing. Having white Anglo cis/hetero/males as (the only) role models is not an option any more. We aim to redress this balance, not only by publishing speculative stories by people with different viewpoints and addressing concerns from outside of the usual area (see World SF), but also by explicitly including fiction that addresses the profound socio-political issues around colonisation and colonialism (see Race in SF). We want to see political stories: not partisan-political, but writing that recognizes the implications for real people and cultures of the events and actions that make up science fictional or fantastic histories, as well as our own history.

For this anthology we will be looking for stories from the perspective of people and places that are colonized under regimes not of their choosing (in the past, present or even future). We are not primarily interested in war stories, although don’t completely rule them out. We are not interested in stories about a White Man learning the error of his ways; nor parables about alien contact in which the Humans are white anglos, and the Aliens are an analogue for other races. We want stories told from the viewpoint of colonized peoples, with characters who do not necessarily speak English, from authors who have experience of the world outside the First World.

This is a Peerbackers project, run by an experienced editing team. See an interview with one of the editors here.

This sort of project isn’t easy to sell to a publisher, but part of the point of Peerbackers is to take some of the risk out of what is generally considered a risky project. Considering that this project is nearly half covered a third of the way into its funding period, it probably isn’t as risky as the powers that be think. (This is true for a lot of projects that never get made because their target audience isn’t 18- to 34-year-old, white, etc. and on males.)

Some of my favorite science fiction from my childhood explored this point of view, so I’ve already ordered my copy. Go do the same if this appeals to you.

Does the G-Spot Exist?

According to Dr Petra, that’s the wrong question to be asking. She makes a good case for her position, too.

Each time studies on the g-spot have been published the media has reacted as though
– these are groundbreaking studies
– the do they/don’t they have g-spots issue is the most pressing topic in sex research
– these studies require no critical attention

And in all these cases journalists – including health and science correspondents – have responded to these studies in one simple way. To frame their stories with the question ‘does the g-spot exist?’ [Read more...]