Saturday Storytime: Godwin’s Law

Though this story by Curtis C. Chen is about lasting ripples from World War II, it doesn’t feature quite the Hitler–or the Godwin–you know.

Michael walked to the memorial wall. The flags were as he remembered—USA on the left, CIA on the right—but the field of black stars floating above the white marble had multiplied since the last time he’d seen it. He now counted more than a hundred stars, each one representing a Company employee who had died in the line of service.

He stepped closer and looked at the Book of Honor, framed in steel and glass below the starfield. Less than half the gold sigils painted in the book’s pages had names written next to them, either in English or Runic.

Is your name in here, Linda? Are you one of these stars?

“Michael,” said a gravelly voice behind him.

Robert Denford didn’t look like he’d aged a single day since Michael left the Company. The two men shook hands coolly.

“How’ve you been?” Denford asked.

Michael glanced back at the wall. “You said it was a matter of historic importance. That’s the only reason I’m here.”

“Let’s go to the archives.”

Michael followed Denford into an elevator. Denford pushed a button.

“I hear you made deputy director,” Michael said as the doors closed.

Denford shrugged. “War is good for business.”

Before the elevator reached the basement, Denford pulled out his access talisman and opened a portal in the back wall. He and Michael stepped through the glowing circle and into a dim cave. There was no way to tell where this archive was; CIA had secret underground caches all over the world.

The two men walked down a long aisle of bookshelves that looked as if they had grown right out of the rough-hewn rock walls. Michael watched Denford pull one shelf out from the wall and unfold it into an impossibly large space. They stepped inside, and Denford parted another set of shelves.

Michael saw labels reading MIDWAY and MARSHALL ISLANDS on his way into a closet walled by what looked like multicolored curtains, but were actually floor-to-ceiling file volumes. He looked around in awe. The Company hadn’t used curtain files since—

“World War Two?” Michael asked.

Denford tugged a cloth line, and the material poured into his hand and became a hardbound book. “This is why we’re here.”

Michael read the book cover. “Hitler’s daughter. You’re joking, right?”

“The old man wants complete discretion. That’s why I called you.”

“I’m retired,” Michael said. “You can get someone more expert to tell you, authoritatively, that this is a crock. Something the Third Reich made up to scare the Allies as a last resort.”

“So you’ve heard the stories.”

“Yeah. Nazis raping Jewish and Romani prisoners, trying to breed supernatural talents into the master race. It didn’t work.”

Denford reached into his jacket and pulled out a modern file folder, bordered in red-and-white eyes-only logograms. The symbols shifted and moved over the paper. “There’s evidence that it did.”

“If you actually had convincing proof, you’d be talking to the JIC.”

“You’re right,” Denford said. “It’s promising, but not convincing. We need someone to run it down. Quietly. The old man trusts you.”

“And no one would suspect an elderly college professor.”

Denford smiled. “Everybody fights.”

Michael took the file. “Nobody wins.”

Keep reading.

“No-Platforming” and the Cult of Bad Arguments

Last week, Rebecca Reilly-Cooper had an opinion piece published by titled, “The attack on Germaine Greer shows identity politics has become a cult”. Now, as is the case on most sites with editors, she probably didn’t write the headline, so it doesn’t get her argument quite right. She actually argues that people who recognize the gender of trans people are totalitarians trying to brainwash the rest of the world.

No, really. I’m not exaggerating. That’s her argument.

The whole thing is so transparently ridiculous that I would just point and laugh if it weren’t for two things. First, I’ve seen “reason-loving” atheists who should really know better sharing the piece. Also, yesterday’s elections here in the U.S. have given us heart-breaking example of why of one of the central prongs of Reilly-Cooper’s article is wrong. [Read more…]

Competing Models for Codes of Conduct

This is one of the essays I delivered to my patrons last month. If you want to support more work like this, and see it earlier, you can sign up here.

There are plenty of reasons that discussions around codes of conduct, their goals, and what should be included in them can be frustrating. Among people talking in good faith, however, the primary reason for frustration is that people are using different theoretical frameworks for codes of conduct and they’re not making those frameworks clear. It’s obviously difficult to come to any agreement about what should be contained in a code if you don’t agree on why you have one.

So here are several common models people use when discussing codes of conduct. Hopefully, this guide will make it easier to explain where you’re coming from when advocating for a particular code and to recognize both what model someone else is using and where the strengths, weaknesses, and unspoken assumptions of that model are. [Read more…]

Mock the Movie: Superior Edition

Look, we can’t help it if Nessie likes Minnesota better than the Highlands of Scotland. We’re clearly just better. It has absolutely nothing to do with the cost of filming overseas from your production office. Nothing at all. Come mock Beyond Loch Ness (aka Loch Ness Terror) with us and see how wonderful the area is. After all, there has to be something good about this movie, right?


Yeah, that’s totes Lake Superior.

This one is available on YouTube. [Read more…]

Building a Better Workshop

A few years ago, atheist and skeptic organizations started adding workshops to their conferences, and that was great. Workshops are hugely useful when you’re trying to become more effective, as the activist wings of both movements were, or when you’re trying to apply abstract principles to your life, as rank-and-file members of both movements were.

There were a few problems, however, because everything was new. While some presenters knew what to expect from workshops and had maybe even facilitated some before, most people didn’t. They had skills and knowledge to share, but no good idea of how to get that across in a workshop format. Nor were conference organizers clear on what they wanted or expected from their workshops.

As a result, we ended up with a few workshops and a whole lot of mini-lectures. Now, lectures can be great, and if your purpose in adding workshops to your event is to keep adding content after you’ve spent your speaker budget on the main stage, there’s no reason to stretch beyond the mini-lecture. But if your goal for workshops is to get people to change their behavior, to be more effective or to live their principles more fully, lectures can’t substitute for workshops.

Why? Because the interactive nature of workshops builds confidence at the same time it conveys information. You can walk away from a lecture thinking the information is interesting but you don’t have what it takes to apply it. You can’t do the same with a workshop where you’ve spent a good chunk of time applying your new knowledge. You know you can do it because you just did.

So now that I’ve convinced you, as an organizer or potential workshop facilitator, that you want to offer real workshops instead of mini-lectures, how do you go about it?

Read the rest at Secular Women Work, where I’m writing today.

Saturday Storytime: Night’s Slow Poison

Ann Leckie is a Tor author whose books are published by Orbit and a bestselling, award-winning author whose books no one reads or likes. And one has to wonder whether the people saying these things, after reading this story, would think it’s all worth it.

The Jewel of Athat was mainly a cargo ship, and most spaces were narrow and cramped. Like the Outer Station, where it was docked, it was austere, its decks and bulkheads scuffed and dingy with age. Inarakhat Kels, armed, and properly masked, had already turned away one passenger, and now he stood in the passageway that led from the station to the ship, awaiting the next.

The man approached, striding as though the confined space did not constrain him. He wore a kilt and embroidered blouse. His skin was light brown, his hair dark and straight, cut short. And his eyes . . . Inarakhat Kels felt abashed. He had thought that in his years of dealing with outsiders he had lost his squeamishness at looking strangers in the face.

The man glanced over his shoulder, and cocked an eyebrow. “She was angry.” The corners of his mouth twitched in a suppressed grin.

“One regrets.” Inarakhat Kels frowned behind his mask. “Who?”

“The woman in line before me. I take it you refused to let her board?”

“She carried undeclared communication implants.” Privately, Kels suspected her of being a spy for the Radchaai, but he did not say this. “One is, of course, most sorry for her inconvenience, but . . . ”

“I’m not,” the man interrupted. “She nearly ruined my supper last night insisting that I give up my seat, since she was certain she was of a higher caste than I.”

“Did you?”

“I did not,” said the man. “I am not from Xum, nor are we anywhere near it, so why should I bow to their customs? And then this morning she shoved herself in front of me as we waited outside.” He grinned fully. “I confess myself relieved at not having to spend six months with her as a fellow passenger.”

“Ah,” Kels said, his voice noncommittal. The grin, the angle of the man’s jaw—now he understood why the eyes had affected him. But he had no time for old memories. He consulted his list. “You are Awt Emnys, from the Gerentate.” The man acknowledged this. “Your reason for visiting Ghaon?”

“My grandmother was Ghaonish,” Awt Emnys said, eyes sober that had previously been amused. “I never knew her, and no one can tell me much about her. I hope to learn more in Athat.”

Whoever she was, she had been from the Ghem agnate, Kels was certain. His eyes, his mouth, the line of his chin . . . With just a little more information, Kels could tell Awt which house his grandmother had been born in. “One wishes you good fortune in your search, Honored Awt,” he said, with a small bow he could not suppress.

Awt Emnys smiled in return, and bowed respectfully. “I thank you, Honored,” he said. “I understand I must disable any communications implants.”

“If they are re-activated during the voyage, we will take any steps necessary to preserve the safety of the ship.”

Awt’s glanced at the gun at Kels’ waist. “Of course. But is it really so dangerous?”

“About three months in,” said Kels, in his blandest voice, “we will pass the last ship that attempted to traverse the Crawl with live communications. It will be visible from the passengers’ lounge.”

Awt grinned. “I have an abiding wish to die old, in my bed. Preferably after a long and boring life tracking warehouse inventories.”

Kels allowed himself a small smile. “One wishes you success,” he said, and stepped aside, pressing against the wall so that Awt could pass him. “Your belongings will be delivered to your cabin.”

“I thank you, Honored.” Awt brushed Kels as he passed, awakening some unfamiliar emotion in him.

“Good voyage,” Kels murmured to the other man’s back, but there was no sign Awt had heard.

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“The Rap Guide to Religion”, Baba Brinkman on Atheists Talk

Atheists Talk is proud to welcome Baba Brinkman to the show this Sunday, November 1st, 2015. We will be speaking with Baba about his newest music album, The Rap Guide to Religion. From his website:

Why do most humans believe in a higher power? What are those beliefs good for? And once they are gone, what can replace them? Fresh from a 5-star run at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and a six month off-Broadway run, this groundbreaking new work explores the various ways and means by which religion evolves in our species, leaving audiences with a new appreciation of religion, and its critics. It’s time to eff with the ineffable.

Baba Brinkman is a Canadian rap artist, writer and actor. He blends his love of the arts and academia to produce intelligent criticisms of religious dogma and celebrations of science.

Baba Brinkman earned a Master of Arts in Medieval and Renaissance English Literature and he studied human evolution and primatology with the orangutan researcher Biruté Galdikas. His thesis compared modern Hip hop freestyle battling with The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

We hope you can join us for this Sunday’s show.

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[Read more…]

“Purely Semantic”

So Richard Dawkins tweeted this morning. I know, but bear with me. What came out was this.

Now, as usual, it’s a good idea to wait a little bit and find out what the Great Communicator meant in the place of what he said. Doing that, we get this. [Read more…]

Saturday Storytime: Children of Dagon

Sometimes future history can carry all the same weight of inevitability that our own history does, even when it’s fantastic. This story by Adrian Tchaikovsky is a good example.

We mass at Knightsbridge Station, just below the surface, taking turns to breathe at the half-sunk steps. Knightsbridge is a peninsula now, caught between the burst north bank of the Thames and the Serpentine. You should know better than to go there, really, with your escape route narrowed to that single land-bridge, but the waters there are fertile, some of the best of all that great expanse of shallows that was Central London. We farm there, our weed and our fish, our shells and our crabs, and where we farm, you come to steal from us. Shallow seas are paradise for my people, and the world has so many of them now, where the rich earth has been taken from you. It wasn’t as if you were taking care of it, after all. If you had been better custodians, we wouldn’t be here. There wouldn’t have been a need for us.

I go ahead, hauling myself up the ridges of the stairs. Out in the open air, the red sun in the west silhouettes the broken skyline. Evening is upon us, and you have outstayed your welcome. I am awkward on the hard ground for a moment before I find my feet. There is still something of you, in the way I stand. My spine is more flexible, my posture more bowed; my neck is long, my head streamlined. My eyes are huge dark pools that pierce the gathering dusk far better than yours. Where you scavenge rags to hide your bare bodies, I have my oil-thick fur.

My hands are like yours, though: part-webbed, but I have your fingers and your thumb, dark and naked. Or perhaps they are otters’ hands, after all. I would prefer that to be the case.

I slink from the toothless maw of Knightsbridge Station, humping my lithe body from cover to cover: not as nimble now I am on the land, but I can stalk two-legged prey with the best of them. Your sentries do not see me, between the drawing dark and the glare of sunset.

There are so many of you! I am always shocked to find there are so many left, and these are just the mass of you in this one place and time. There are numbers we have learned, for how many humans lived on the earth when Doctor Deacon began his work, but they are meaningless. They are numbers that nobody should have any use for. I know there must be far less of you now, but still . . . so many, crawling like maggots across the Knightsbridge peninsula, netting and clawing at the water’s bounty, stripping the littoral of everything edible. Your habits have not changed since the waters came.

I wait there, watching you, trying to see you as something other than a composite, consuming mass. You are pale and filthy, and I can smell the thin, sour reek of you from here. And you are thin—limbs like sticks, faces like skulls. You cluster together in your little clans: You have brought your whole families for this day at the seaside. I smell the smoke of your little fires, but many of you just tear at the fish with your teeth, too hungry to wait.

I watch your children. Even hungry, even desperate, at this trailing loose end of your history, they are still children. They play and jump as ours do; they fight each other as ours do; they splash in the water, eyes bright with curiosity. No doubt you love them, just as we love ours. You want the best for them, now that your parents and their parents have ensured that you will have only the worst.

I wait too long, watching your young. For all that we are children of a different god, I cannot see your children without feeling the stir of pity in me. We were all human once, and our creator left alone those things that let us think and feel. My heart, my lungs, my blood, my bones, these he improved, but that part of me that loves, he left alone.

But all these lands under the water’s shadow are ours, and we have hungry children too.

Keep reading.