DNA Days

My librarian friend Jody has been busy. Jody is always busy, but she’s been just a little bit busier as the library’s DNA Days events have approached. Starting this evening and running through next Tuesday, the Hennepin County libraries will be running a series of events meant to help people sort through their family history of disease and figure out what it means to them.

Most of the events are about collecting family health histories and about the genetics of cancer and how it affects risk. On Saturday morning, however, local science artist and Minnesota Atheists member Lynn Fellman will present the keynote talk in this series, “Your Inner Neandertal”.

Do you know why some people are 1 to 4% Neandertal? Lynn Fellman explains how your Uncle Ned and maybe you have an “Inner Neander” during her art and science talk on April 28th. The presentation is one of many talks at Twin City libraries to celebrate National DNA Days.

“Your Inner Neandertal” is a 30 minute presentation showing how art can uniquely express science concepts and why some of us may find a little “Neander” in our genes. With examples from “At the Crossroads” video and DNA Portrait traveling show, Fellman explains how some genes may be a surprising and generous gift from our ancient and now extinct cousins.

These events are all free, but registration is required. Check out some of the events. If Lynn’s talk interests you, you might also want to listen to the Atheists Talk episode from this past Sunday, in which John Hawks and Greg Laden discussed the Neandertal contribution to our genome, as well as that of the lesser-known Denisovans. Find out where we came from and what that does (and doesn’t) mean for us today.

Sometimes Church-State Separation Is Better for the Church

You’ve heard about the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church and his now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t watch with the $30,000 price tag.

But eagle-eyed bloggers noticed that although there was no longer any watch on his wrist, the reflection on the shiny table showed the watch! When this was pointed out, the church apologized for the substitution and replaced the original photo with the watch.

But apparently no one alerted the patriarch to this reversal because he denied even owning such a watch, now an obviously absurd claim. Kirilli then claimed that he had looked through the many gifts he gets and found that he had indeed received such a watch but had never worn it and that the original photo had been doctored to insert the watch to make him look bad, an even more obvious lie.

You may have also heard about the all-female punk band that performed in the all-male altar space of a Moscow church. [Read more…]

About Those Gay Homophobes

A little while ago, Natalie put up (as part of a longer post, naturally) a meditation on the stories of trans people.

I suppose there’s a lot of things that I find strange or complicated about trans people “telling our stories”. It feels like it’s something we’re sort of frustratingly expected to do, and like there’s a certain kind of particular genre in which we’re expected to tell it. It’s supposed to be a story filled with struggle and pain and suicide attempts and ostracization and so forth. A bit of a grim tragedy thing. And people often seem annoyed when we tell our stories in different terms… like as comedies, epics or fantasies. Or when we swap out the expected tropes, metaphors and archetypes, such as The Victim, The Bully, The Wrong Body, The Last Resort, The Transformation, and instead articulate ourselves through new, self-determined terms and frameworks.

Story is part of the way we construct and manage meaning. Our cultural expectations of story and our retellings of stories both have an effect on the retention of the memories from which those stories are told. It is simply easier to deal with memories that conform to what we think story should be.

And us? Well, we’re lazy sods, so we gravitate to the stories that meet our expectations, that are easier to deal with. Not always, but it’s true in the general case. So, when we see a study (pdf) that tells us that self-identified heterosexual men who score highly in homophobia also show a greater degree of “penile tumescence” in response to graphic male-on-male pornography, the lazy response is to use this finding to prop up the idea that “everyone knows” that homophobes are compensating for being secretly gay. [Read more…]

High School Math Teachers Don’t Think Girls Can Do Math

200810studentai10edited by Andrius Kulikauskas. Some rights reserved.

This wasn’t possible for me when I was in high school. I was that annoying math student who would look up from doing the homework to correct the teacher’s solution on the board. The one who complained that Algebra and Precalc and Algebra II covered too much of the same territory, and if the district was going to offer an accelerated math program, they should accelerate it, not just have a bunch of us kids skip one year in junior high then plod on at the same pace as everyone else.

Yes, I was annoying. I was also very hard to underestimate when it came to math. Or maybe I was still underestimated anyway. I certainly was by college, and given these findings, it wouldn’t be at all out of the ordinary. [Read more…]

Stand Your Ground: White Men Only

You already know about John McNeil, the black man in Georgia who was imprisoned for shooting a man who had just threatened his son with a knife.

The afternoon of December 6th, 2005, Brian Epp showed up in John McNeil’s yard. McNeil’s son, La’Ron, testified that Epp threatened him with a knife, and La’Ron ran into the house to call his father on the phone. McNeil immediately called 911 for help, and when he arrived in his driveway, Epp was getting something from his own truck. John McNeil grabbed his handgun from the glove compartment, as Epp quickly approached him. McNeil fired a warning shot into the ground, trying to keep Epp back. As Epp kept coming towards him, he reached into his pocket, and John McNeil shot Brian Epp once in the head.

A neighbor who witnessed the incident corroborated McNeil’s statements to the police, and John McNeil was not arrested. Georgia has a Stand Your Ground law, and John McNeil’s actions-defending his family against a threatening and violent intruder-were the classic Stand Your Ground case. A year later, John McNeil was on trial for murder, he was convicted and is now serving a life sentence in prison. The prosecutor received “anonymous” emails, including one discovered to be from Brian Epp’s widow, demanding the state try John McNeil. And the prosecutor gave in.

Now meet Marissa Alexander, who is waiting to be sentenced to as much as 20 years in prison for aggravated assault. [Read more…]

Local Conferency Goodness

If you get tired of all those coastal people having conference after conference that it just costs too much for you to get to, next weekend is the weekend for you. You have two choices in the region, and both are free.

The Madison Area Coalition of Reason is hosting Freethought Festival 2012 from Friday, April 27, through Sunday, April 29. The schedule is packed (and I do mean packed) with well-known speakers on topics from human sexuality and evolution to anti-religious activism to creating a secular society to building our political movement. There are a few names on the schedule you might not recognize, but they’re all people you should hear from.

Also, the conference is in Madison, at the campus. This is an ideal place to end up when your event isn’t providing meals. You can probably find bad meals in that town, but I haven’t managed it yet. So register if you haven’t already.

Or maybe a full weekend of conference is too much for you or Madison too far from the Cities. If that’s the case, the Secular Student Alliance at Winona State University is hosting a skepticamp on Sunday, April 29. From 1 p.m. to 5:30, there will be faculty and student speakers with Q&A in the skepticamp format.

We learn not so much through passive absorption, but rather by actively engaging the subject matter. In composing a presentation we must grasp a subject at a more intimate level than merely reading about it. We anticipate questions and prepare to offer thoughtful answers. We also learn through focused discussion where we ask questions and listen to answers with the benefit of context. Some domains, including skepticism, require a mastery of skills, where we benefit from rich opportunities to practice and refine those skills.

Open events build squarely on these principles by emphasizing participation and interaction. This includes asking that speakers take questions during their talks, not only to make the most of the context of a question, but also as a mechanism of quality control.

After the talks comes a dinner break with skeptical crafts (no, I don’t know what they are, but I’m curious) and games, then a showing of Religulous. It’s a smaller, less formal event than the Madison conference, but that’s exactly what some of us need to make these events accessible.

Saturday Storytime: Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue

If you don’t know who John Scalzi is, you may not read enough science fiction, follow enough silly people on Twitter, read enough blogs, or have gone to enough W00tstocks. Last April, very, very (very) early in April, Scalzi wrote a story for Tor. That story has since been nominated for the 2012 Hugo Award.

Night had come to the city of Skalandarharia, the sort of night with such a quality of black to it that it was as if black coal had been wrapped in blackest velvet, bathed in the purple-black ink of the demon squid Drindel and flung down a black well that descended toward the deepest, blackest crevasses of Drindelthengen, the netherworld ruled by Drindel, in which the sinful were punished, the black of which was so legendarily black that when the dreaded Drindelthengenflagen, the ravenous blind black badger trolls of Drindelthengen, would feast upon the uselessly dilated eyes of damned, the abandoned would cry out in joy as the Drindelthengenflagenmorden, the feared Black Spoons of the Drindelthengenflagen, pressed against their optic nerves, giving them one last sensation of light before the most absolute blackness fell upon them, made yet even blacker by the injury sustained from a falling lump of ink-bathed, velvet-wrapped coal.

With the night came a storm, the likes of which the eldest among the Skalandarharians would proclaim they had seen only once before, although none of them could agree which on which one time that was; some said it was like the fabled Scouring of Skalandarharia, in which the needle-sharp ice-rain flayed the skin from the unjust of the city, provided they were outside at the time, while sparing the just who had stayed indoors; others said it was very similar to the unforgettable Pounding of Skalandarharia, in which hailstones the size of melons destroyed the city’s melon harvest; still others compared it to the oft-commented-upon Moistening of Skalandarharia, in which the persistent humidity made everyone unbearably sticky for several weeks; at which point they were informed that this storm was really nothing like that at all, to which they replied perhaps not, but you had to admit that was a pretty damn miserable time.

Which is to say: It was a dark and stormy night.

And in that dark and stormy night, upon the walls of Smaelkaven, the imperial castle of Skalandarharia, two guards stood, upon a watch.

Keep reading.

Let’s Talk About CISPA

Everything Facebook has done with regard to your privacy is nothing as compared to their support for this bill. So long, Facebook, until this thing is killed dead. Friends, I’ll miss you.

I just left that message on Facebook before signing off. Doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it? That’s because Facebook stripped off the link that went to this infographic on the Cyber Intelligence Sharing & Protection Act. That link also identifies Facebook as one of the supporters of the bill, the only one with which I was doing any business. I’m not anymore.

Is it a coincidence that Facebook stripped my link? Maybe. I was able to post it again underneath my status. It isn’t important. What is important is that this bill, which is breathtaking in its scope, be stopped.

[Read more…]

Atheists Talk: John Hawks on Human Evolution

John Hawks is one of the nation’s leading palaeoanthropologists and has lately been working with ancient DNA, recent and earlier Human Evolution, and an interesting project that is a sort of casting call for extinct humans and their relatives.

Most of you know John from his famous Internet site called “John Hawks Weblog: Paleoanthropology, Genetics and Evolution.” John is an associate professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, which is one of the better known and respected for this sort of research.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you know that there are many interesting and exciting things going on in human origins research these days, and on Sunday morning, on Atheist Talk radio, John and Greg Laden will cover as many of them as they can. Were the Clovis people Solutreans? How many hominids were there in recent prehistory? And what do both ancient and modern DNA studies tell us about the Neanderthal side of the human family?

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 radio@mnatheists.org during the live show. If you miss the live show, listen to the podcast later.

Can They See Irony?

Oh, dear. It turns out some U.S. nuns are just too independent.

The Vatican orthodoxy watchdog announced Wednesday a full-scale overhaul of the largest umbrella group for nuns in the United States, accusing the group of taking positions that undermine Roman Catholic teaching on the priesthood and homosexuality while promoting “certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

What “radical feminist themes” would that be?

“Some commentaries on ‘patriarchy’ distort the way in which Jesus has structured sacramental life in the church,” the authors of the report wrote.

And just how is sacramental life in the church to be structured for these nuns?

An American archbishop was appointed to oversee reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which will include rewriting the group’s statutes, reviewing all its plans and programs — including approving speakers — and ensuring the organization properly follows Catholic prayer and ritual.

Yes, no patriarchy there at all. It’s just just a misunderstanding, I’m sure.

I wonder what the Holy Father thinks of this “patriarchy” nonsense…oh, wait.