The Long Ride

A note from my husband.

Tomorrow I’ll be heading up to Proctor High School in Duluth, MN on a bus with a bunch of strangers and some people I work with. Then, on Saturday, I’ll be riding my bicycle 75 miles to Hinckley, MN where I’ll spend a glamorous evening at Hinckley High School waiting for Sunday and 75 more miles of cycling to White Bear Lake, MN.

Why would I do this? Sometimes it feels like an unachievable goal. On Friday and Saturday night, I’ll be trying to find a place to hang a hammock on an athletic field. Maybe between the goal posts? There will be thousands of people I don’t know, which will grant me both a certain level of anonymity as well as a feeling of being out of place. I have a lot of sunblock packed, but I’ll be spending 6-8 hours in sunlight both days and it will probably all wash off in the rain on Sunday. And I’ve probably biked less than 200 miles so far this year, so I’ll nearly double my distance over a single weekend and easily double any distance I’ve biked in a day this year.

But the fundamental reason I’m doing this is that it benefits the National MS Society. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society uses money collected from this MS150 event to fund cutting-edge research, drive change through advocacy, facilitate professional education and provide programs and services that help people with MS and their families move their lives forward.

For one small example of surprising MS research, check out this interview on Science Friday with Larry Steinman who found that amyloid plaque, normally associated with Alzheimer’s disease actually improved MS-like symptoms in mice.

LARRY STEINMAN: [W]e decided to ask when we administered these amyloid molecules, would it make the mouse model of multiple sclerosis worse. That was our hypothesis because we knew that the molecules are supposed to be villains.

Much to our surprise, we found that when we administered them to mice who were paralyzed, they were able to walk around. And as long as we continued to administer these molecules on a daily basis, intravenously, we found that they were perfectly fine. When we stopped giving it, the paralysis recurred.

Now that you’re impressed by science, join many other atheists and freethinkers by donating to my ride and helping the MS society work toward ridding the world of MS. For the first $500 in donations made today, Stephanie and I will match your donation 50%. Even if you can’t give much, this is a way to give more.

Federal Abortion Bill Advances

Last week, I received this action alert from CFI’s Office of Public Policy:

Help Defeat Proposals That Would Ban All Abortions in U.S. After 20 Weeks

Rep. Trent Franks is at it again. Last month, the Republican Congressman from Arizona introduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives that would outlaw all abortions in Washington, D.C. after 20 weeks — with saving the mother from death being the only exception.

Now, Franks has announced his intention to amend the bill and expand its reach nationwide. That’s right: Rep. Franks wants a nationwide ban on abortions after 20 weeks. The bill has quickly racked up 133 co-sponsors in the House, and has a companion in the Senate, S. 886.

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) considers these proposals an outrage and urges members to contact their elected officials in Congress to oppose them.

As you might imagine, I agree with the OPP on this. I’m passing this on now because the Republican majority of the House Judiciary subcommittee assigned to evaluate the bill disagree with me. [Read more...]

#FBRape (Update)

Many of us came home from the Women in Secularism conference and worked to settle back into real life. Soraya Chemaly went home and launched an anti-rape, anti-domestic violence campaign with Women, Action & the Media (WAM). What are they working on?

Facebook has long allowed content endorsing violence against women. They claim that these pages fall under the “humor” part of their guidelines, or are expressions of “free speech.” But Facebook has proven willing to crack down on other forms of hate speech, including anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and homophobic speech, without claiming such exemptions.

When these pages are reported to Facebook as hate speech, Facebook says, “Oh, no. Those are humor pages. They stay up.” Facebook doesn’t do the same thing with pages that laugh about violence toward other demographics, but it does with those that laugh about beating, raping, and killing women.* Pages that put up content like this. (Don’t click through unless you’re sure you want to see that.) It leaves that while taking down pictures of babies breastfeeding and calling an ad highlighting the lack of link between abortion and breast cancer unacceptable “adult services” advertising.

Complaints about these uneven policies and processes made to Facebook have been ignored or the responses unhelpful. So what can be done short of closing your Facebook account and walking away from it? You can take action by talking to the advertisers whose products and services appear on those pages in support of WAM’s open letter calling for changes.

WAM have made this manageable. They’ve highlighted a few large advertisers, provided pictures of their ads in places they won’t want them, given one-click links for contacting those advertisers by Twitter, email, and Facebook. They are also tracking the status of various companies’ responses so you know, for example, whether to simply ask them to keep pressure on Facebook to change or whether you need to remind them that reporting isn’t enough when Facebook’s policy is to shrug off these complaints. All you have to do is click and go.

*Standard disclaimer about focusing on violence that targets women: Yes, men experience higher rates of violence in the U.S. than women do. Yes, I’d like to see that end too. However, men are not targeted for violence specifically because of their sex (for cissexual males), meaning that other factors than their sex have to be addressed to reduce that violence. Yes, I spend time and energy on those issues too.

Update: Hooray!

Make All the Policy!

Do you want to make all the policy? Or to put it another way, are you a public policy person with a dedication to secularism who is looking for a job?

This has been posted elsewhere, on blogs with a much larger readership. However, this is a specialized role, so the more people who see it the better.

American Atheists, Inc., a non-profit and nonpartisan educational and advocacy organization dedicated to the separation of religion and government and the equality of atheists, is seeking a qualified individual to take a leadership role in the development and implementation of its public policy activities. Responsibilities may include:

  • Arranging and taking meetings with Congressional and Administration officials.
  • Drafting action alerts for mass emails to American Atheists members.
  • Collaborating with coalitions of national nontheistic and secular organizations to create
    better outcomes for the nontheistic community in everyday life.
  • Monitoring federal legislative and administrative policies.
  • Monitoring state actions for bills and laws that violate the separation of religion and
    government.
  • Developing policy proposals related to secularizing the tax code
  • Preparing comments and other position statements.
  • Other tasks as assigned.

Candidates should have at least 3 years of professional experience in public policy and legislative affairs and have a degree in law or related to public policy as well as knowledge of the Constitution, federal government, and the tax code; excellent analytic and problem solving skills; creativity and leadership; knowledge of the legislative process; ability to work independently; and excellent written and verbal skills.

Well-qualified candidates will have Capitol Hill experience and a demonstrated commitment to the nontheistic community or separation of religion and government issues.

American Atheists’ headquarters is in New Jersey; this position will be based at a satellite office in Washington, D.C.

Salary will be commensurate with experience. Additional benefits include paid sick, holiday, and vacation days; health insurance and dental insurance.

Please send a cover letter, resume, and a writing sample related to public policy or a public policy issue to [email protected] Applications will be considered on a rolling basis until June 3, 2013.

Keep Religion Out of Health Care

Passing this along from CFI’s Office of Public Policy:

Tell the Obama Administration to Protect Women’s Access to Birth Control, Finalize Rule

On February 1, 2013, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) proposed yet another set of changes to the birth control rule, which mandates that employers or health insurance companies provide free coverage for preventive health services, such as contraception. We think these changes are both unnecessary and unwise. At the same time, we are pleased that HHS has resisted pressure from religious organizations to eliminate the rule.

The proposed changes would, among other things, further accommodate employers that object to contraception on religious grounds by expanding the definition of “religious employer,” and simplifying the manner in which objecting organizations can opt out of coverage.

We at the Center for Inquiry (CFI) applauded the Obama administration for issuing the birth control rule in August 2011, as we considered it an important step forward for reproductive rights and health care. And we are pleased the administration has held relatively steady on its commitment to provide women with free access to safe, preventative health care despite intense opposition from organized religion.

However, the proposed changes needlessly complicate what was already a scientifically sound policy, and they will force women to face additional challenges in accessing contraceptive coverage. Furthermore, the changes were a futile attempt at placating religious critics such as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Yet both groups reject the changes and, as they have stated in their own comments on this issue, will be satisfied with nothing less than the rule being completely rescinded.

This is where you come in. Do you believe women should have full control over their reproductive systems regardless of the religious beliefs of their employer? Do you feel HHS has gone far enough in trying to please far-right religious critics of the birth control rule? Do you think it’s time to finalize the rule and move on?

HHS will accept public comments on the proposed changes until April 8, 2013. While CFI is completing the draft of its formal comments and will not release them until next week, we urge you to write HHS as soon as possible and tell them that:

  • Whatever accommodations might be adopted, nothing should prevent women from having straightforward, free access to birth control.
  • The expansion of the definition of “religious employer” is wrong, and it gives organizations that claim to have a religious identity more control over the health care decisions of their employees.
  • It is deeply troubling that the religious lobby has had so much influence over a major health and public policy decision, which should be based on reason, science, and the common good, rather than sectarian dogma.
  • At the very least, employers should be responsible for notifying insurance providers that they will need to arrange coverage, and notifying employees that they will still receive coverage, at no additional cost, from their insurance provider.
  • Coverage for health care benefits such as contraception should be seamless and any additional burdens created by HHS accommodations should be placed on the employer or else the insurance company—not the employee.

Hundreds of thousands of people who work at religiously affiliated organizations are depending on you to speak out on their behalf. Make your voice heard! Take action now!

Here’s how:

1.  Visit www.regulations.gov.

2.  In the search field, type the following: CMS-2012-0031-63161.

3.  Scroll to the result and click on “Comment Now!”

4. On the following page, submit your comment either by typing or pasting your message in the open box, or by uploading a file.

Thank you!

Even if you simply send those bullet points verbatim, comment. Allowing employers to meddle in their employee’s health this way is an appalling invasion of privacy. If employers are going to remain the access portal for our health care, they must be required to take their personal preferences out of the process.

Money for Nothing

In case you’ve missed it, Crommunist is leading the drive to swell the ranks of Kiva lenders, and Kiva is making it very, very easy to join, even for those who can’t afford to lend right now. They like their number one lending group, and they want to see us get bigger.

A lending team you’re a member of, “Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and the Non-Religious” is super close to hitting a big milestone: 25,000 members. You’re less than 500 people away from hitting that goal, and we’d love to help you get there.

Kiva has $10,000 for matching loans of your team’s choice–but only if you can reach the goal of 25,000 team members by midnight on March 31st, 2013

Thanks largely to Crommunist and to people who have been spreading the word, we’re now just over 100 members from the goal. We can do this, especially since they make it so easy, but we don’t have much time left.

You see, you can sign up right now for a trial loan. You don’t have to add any of your own money, and Kiva will give you $25 to lend to…well, you get to decide that. Most of my loans go to women in less politically stable areas because the research I’ve seen says that does the most good, but you can decide on your own loan priorities.

On top of that, if you use that link, Crommunist will also get a gift loan for $25 to direct. He’s raised some ridiculous (but wonderful) amount in gift loans, and his readers direct where that money goes. (This is also how the money he gets from blogging at FtB is used.)

On top of that, this qualifies you to join the Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and the Non-Religious lending group, swelling our numbers not just to help demonstrate that we’re not the callous, uncaring infidels we’re sometimes painted as, but also to release those matching funds for use. All told, between that matching money and the dual gift loans, that’s about $30,000 in Kiva-supplied loans without any of the money any of us put in.

And if that’s not incentive enough, you’ll never be caught flat-footed again when someone asks what you want for your birthday. Just ask them to add to your lending portfolio and save yourself from receiving another Cosby sweater.

Go on. Sign up.

Bring in the Experts!

If you’ve been to SkepchickCON before (as part of CONvergence), you know that part of the Skepchick’s strategy for bringing good science and skepticism into a science fiction is adding more expertise to the mix. We regular attendees can study up for our panels, but we are no substitute for a scientist or journalist who has made an in-depth study of a particular field. In past years, Skepchick has brought in astronomers and climate scientists, journalists and activists to make sure that the information presented to our audiences is the best it can be.

Expertise, however, isn’t free. Our experts are generous with their time, but there are still travel and hotel costs to be paid. That money, as with so much in skepticism, comes from donations.

Skepchick is coming up on its first funding target tomorrow. They’re close to their goal (closer than it looks on the widget due to an outside donation, but they’re still not there. As an incentive for donations, Surly Amy is turning psychic and answering reader questions. All the same guaranteed accuracy as any other psychic with much more entertainment.

If you have some spare cash and want to support successful skeptical and scientific outreach, won’t you consider donating to help SkepchickCON this year? It will help determine how many and which experts Skepchick can bring in.

Have You Heard the Good News?

I mean the news out of Saint Paul. Via Minnesotans United for All Families:

A bipartisan group of legislative leaders announced a bill Wednesday morning to give same-sex couples the right to get married in Minnesota.

“It would simply allow folks who so desire, who have demonstrated a lifetime of love and commitment to get married,” said Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis), a co-author of the bill. “We’re affirming things that we all prize, love at the center of marriage.”

The legislation aims to repeal Minnesota’s 1997 law that banned marriage between two people of the same sex.

Co-author Sen. Branden Petersen (R-Andover), is the first Republican state legislator to publicly support gay marriage in Minnesota.  He said this bill “strengthens children, strengthens marriage and families and protects religious freedom.”

Despite Minnesota voters defeating an anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment in November, opponents of same sex marriage aren’t backing down.

Read the whole thing here. Help Minnesotans United get out the support for this bill here or here. If you live in Minnesota, please contact your state rep and senator. We can make this happen.

You Count–Be Counted

The timing is coincidental. I know because Adam Lee and I talked about his petition about a week ago. It was driven by Thunderf00t’s video, not by the timing of the HEADS meeting that Ron Lindsay asked about two days ago. Nonetheless, the timing is good.

We, the undersigned, are atheists, skeptics and nonbelievers who value free speech and rational thought and who seek to build a strong, thriving movement that can advocate effectively for these values. We’ve chosen to put our names to this petition because we want to respond to a video created by a blogger calling himself Thunderfoot. In this video, Thunderfoot attacks named individuals who’ve been active in promoting diversity and fighting sexism and harassment in our movement. He describes these people as “whiners” and “ultra-PC professional victims” who are “dripp[ing] poison” into the secular community, and urges conference organizers to shun and ignore them.

We hold this and similar complaints from other individuals to be seriously misguided, false in their particulars and harmful to the atheist community as a whole, and we want to set the record straight. We wish to clarify that Thunderfoot and those like him don’t speak for us or represent us, and to state our unequivocal support for the following goals:

What are those goals? Making the movement more diverse and inclusive; having strong, sensible anti-harassment policies at our gatherings, and supporting those of us who have been targeted by bullying, harassment, and threats.

Why is the timing good? Shortly the leaders of several national secular organizations will meet to discuss the state of the movement and their priorities for the near future. They could have gone into this knowing that this is an important issue to some of them but not really being able to sort out the balance of opinions from the loud voices talking about these issues. They could have gone into it having heard only from those followers of Thunderf00t who listened when he asked them to take his video to the organizations (though Ron’s request and the responses he’s received mitigated that at least somewhat).

Instead, if you are one of the many people who have spoken up here, or nodded quietly while lurking, Adam has given you an easy way to make your opinion known. You can go and leave a message to those leaders with your vote, or you can simply sign and be counted. Many of them responded well to the call to implement anti-harassment policies. Several contributed to Surly Amy’s series speaking generally against hatred. They should be receptive to this as well, but being leaders, they’re not always answerable just to themselves. Help them know they’re speaking for you too when they move forward on this.

Adam has more at his blog on his reasons for creating the petition.

Helping the Families

We can’t change what happened. We can’t make it better. We can, however, take one small worry off the plate of the families who lost children in Newtown. From We Are Atheism:

Atheists Giving Aid – Support Sandy Hook Elementary

During this time of great tragedy, American Atheists along with the Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics (SOMA, a SSA affiliate and University of Kansas Student Organization) and We Are Atheism, have decided to come together to raise funds for the children and their families affected by the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary SchoolThe families that have been hurt did not plan for their child’s funeral, no parent does.  None of us would have ever thought to have money saved for the great expense of a funeral for any of our children.  The money you donate will go directly to the Sandy Hook Elementary families for funeral expenses and counseling for the survivors of the shooting and their families.  Now it is your turn to show that there are more of those who love and care for their fellow community members than those who would kill mercilessly.

A typical child’s funeral costs between $3,000-$5,000.  The wooden casket alone is near $3,000.  In Newtown, CT the cost of living is ~129% above the national average. This horrific time is difficult enough without having to worry about how they are going to pay to bury their child and afford counseling for themselves and their siblings left behind. Please give as much as you can so the people of Newtown, CT can begin healing and get the help they need.

We will be processing these payments to American Atheists to distribute the money to the 20 families that we have contact info for. Additional funds will go to help the families of the adults who were killed and to community in their efforts to provide counseling to those involved. Your donation is tax deductible (we will be getting our 501C3 status next year)

Yes, I know that sometimes parents do have insurance for that. They’ve checked. These parents did not.

You can donate here.