New isn’t always improved

The new Google Reader sucks ass. I know, First World Problems. But Google Reader is a staple to a blogger. I keep up to date with current events and commentary (and lolcats) by subscribing to 154 different blogs, and that list is growing every day. I also read those blogs on a netbook. Now that Google Reader devoted a huge part of the page to search bars, buttons, and useless white space, I can barely see the posts I’m trying to read.

But worse, they’ve destroyed the Sharing option. That’s where I’d always get my best reading material from. I had a little network of friends who would work to filter out the gems from blogs I don’t follow. Instead, the replacement forces you to +1 something, and then select which circles you want to share it with.

This would be theoretically fine if 1. the user interface actually worked well and 2. shared posts appeared in Google Reader. But neither of these things are true. When you +1 something, you have to hover your cursor around and/or reclick with the hopes that you’ll get the option to share. And if you’re on a laptop with a tiny screen, this pop up will take up the whole page, have half of its options hidden, and awkwardly scroll away as you try to read it. And your shared items will just show up as a link in your Google+ stream. You actually have to click to see the article in question, instead of conveniently reading and commenting on it while you’re reading all of your other blogs. The whole point of sharing in Google Reader is so you don’t have to click anything else. So it’s really no different than a “Share on facebook” button, which is what I would prefer to click because no one I know uses Google+ anyway.

Google can save this by:

1. Reducing all the useless white space, or at least making it permanently minimizable for those of us with tiny screens.

2. Having a link on left sidebar that lets you see all posts from a circle of people you want to follow, or from people who have shared with circles that contain you.

Also, it’s ugly.

Boo, hiss, change is scary, etc.

Greta Christina in Seattle this Thursday!

Need I say any more? You better have a good excuse to not come see Greta Christina:

EVENT/ HOSTS: Secular Student Union, University of Washington

DATE: Thursday, November 3rd

TIME: 5:30pm

LOCATION: Thomson Hall 125 (map)
University of Washington, Seattle, WA

TOPIC: What Can The Atheist Movement Learn from the LGBT Movement?

SUMMARY: The atheist movement is already modeling itself on the LGBT movement in many ways — most obviously with its focus on coming out of the closet. What else can the atheist movement learn from the LGBT movement… both from its successes and its failures?

COST: Free

There will be shmoozing afterward and we’ll probably go out for food. Be there!

I guess they REALLY wouldn’t like my costume

A Mormon church in Utah is throwing a Halloween party for their community. Everyone is invited…unless you’re cross dressing.

I wonder if my favorite costume that I’ve seen so far would be welcome?

I mean, is Princess Darth Vader gender appropriate? Vader is male, maybe making him Princess-y conforms to gender norms enough for Mormons. I guess these are the tough answers theologians are trained to answer.

I only wear a sexy Halloween costume…

…when it’s ironic and blasphemous.*

Aw yeah, Sexy Mormon Missionaries. You know this would be a much more effective way of converting people.

Me: I feel a little bad getting a Book of Mormon just to use as part of a blasphemous offensive Halloween costume.
Boyfriend: Think of Prop 8
Me: I don’t feel bad anymore.

And thus, the Book of Mormon spankings begun.

*Not because I’ m against sexy costumes, but because it was freaking cold getting to the party in those hot pants. I have to be pretty entertained to sacrifice warmth.

Keeping your mouth shut to advance your social standing

The thing in the title?

Yeah, doing that makes me miserable.

As you know, I initially wrote a post that references things some people in my department had said. I had already waited a couple of days to write the post, figuring I should give myself time to think about it instead of reacting emotionally. I later removed it because a colleague said it could be perceived as burning bridges within my department. Maybe I needed more time to think. After talking with more people within my department, within academia, and outside of academia, I decided it should go back up with some edits. I think the topic of how we view evolution acceptance and education is profoundly important. How shitty my NSF fellowship draft was not the main point of that article (though thanks to those of you who gave constructive criticism).

I know not everyone agrees with me on my decision to restore the post, so I want to try to explain.

When I was younger, I was shy. Cripplingly shy. I never spoke up because it seemed every time I did, someone would make fun of me or judge me for what I said. I was that nerdy awkward kid with no friends on the bottom of the social totem pole. When I was switching schools, I knew I’d be meeting new people and had a chance to start anew. I resolved myself to not caring about what other people thought about me. I would speak my mind and share my thoughts, and screw anyone who had a problem with it. If they thought I was abrasive or weird or offensive, did I really want to be friends with them anyway?

Doing this changed my life immensely. I was finally happy with myself. There were certainly times where my plan hurt. Like many girls, I had been socialized to be soft spoken and modest and to want everyone to like me. I still feel twinges of panic when I know someone thinks negatively of me. But overall, I find myself much happier – and surrounded by much better friends – because I embrace honesty.

And frankly, I don’t think the social dynamics of the real world – be it business or academia – are all that different from a high school cafeteria. I know that by speaking my mind, I will probably accidentally burn some bridges. There will be people out there who see me as a rabble-rouser and a trouble maker that they don’t want to be associated with. Most people expect you to Play the Game, or to at least Play the Game long enough that you can subvert it from the inside forty years later.

I refuse to play that game.

Is this going to totally ruin my potential career as a scientist? Honestly, probably not. Because for every person who sees me as a liability, there are people who respect a willingness to speak up when it’s risky. I’ve had numerous biology professors and biologists in industry across the country – almost all of them strangers – say how impressed they were that I was doing what I was doing. I’ve even had some try to recruit me to work in their lab. Being an outspoken blogger is going to be seen as a positive by some people. Do I really want to be working with the people who think otherwise?

But a fairly well-known skeptic told me recently that he hoped I was looking into alternative careers, because he thought I was screwed. No one was going to hire me. You have to wait until you have tenure to be so outspoken!

What if he’s right? What if after four more years of grad school, I find out I’m totally wrong? If I realize I can’t get a job anywhere in academia, because people have blacklisted me?

Then I’d be happy to leave academia.

I don’t want to be somewhere where I’m miserable. And being forced to play that game – the game I realize the vast majority of people have to play – is not what I want in life. I rather live my life to the fullest instead of constantly being fearful that anything I do may ruin my Grand Plan. To steal sage advice from Greta – I rather be hated for what I am than loved for what I’m not. If that leaves me trying to get by on freelance writing and blog earnings, or doing who knows what, then so be it. For all I know, it could also leave me as the next celebrated popular science writer. Who knows.

But what I do know is that I will be surrounded by people who like and respect the real me, not someone who is too fearful to speak out, or too busy kissing ass. I’m sure some of you will think I’m a naive idealist, and that I should just hunker down and play the game like everyone else. But the virtues of being honest and outspoken are more important to me than climbing the social ladder or making a couple more dollars on my paycheck.

Accepting evidence is not dogmatic

Update: I have decided to restore this post with some minor edits. I will write more about my decision to do so in another post, since I think the topic of self censorship in terms of the social structure of academia is an interesting topic.

Hrmph.

I’m frustrated. As I talked about before, I’m working on my NSF Graduate Fellowship proposal. Part of this process is getting a ton of students and professors to critique your paper. I honestly shouldn’t be too annoyed, because overall the reviews of my proposal have been very good. But a critique that I got from many – but not the majority of – my reviewers happens to be a major pet peeve of mine.

I was too “dogmatic.”

The offending part was the opening paragraphs of my personal statement. I’ll post it here for full disclosure:

            “College was a bit of a culture shock for me. I grew up in a nurturing environment that embraced science – Bill Nye the Science Guy was the program of choice, and competing in Science Olympiad was cool. But when I moved a tad farther south into the heartland of Indiana for my undergraduate education at Purdue University, I quickly realized this was not a universal truth. The attitude toward evolution was terrible amongst non-scientists on campus. One of the local churches was a major donor to the infamous Creation Museum in Kentucky, activists handed out anti-evolution tracts on the main quad, and anti-evolution letters in the campus newspaper were commonplace. I was shocked to learn that even many of my fellow biology majors did not accept evolution.

The fact that so many people didn’t share my fascination with evolutionary theory troubled me on a personal level. This wasn’t simply someone disagreeing with how I earned a paycheck: Learning about evolution was the key event that led me to adopt a skeptical, naturalistic worldview. I felt like people were rejecting the ideals that shape my humanist ethics. I wanted others to understand my feelings of awe as I contemplate the universe, or how lucky I feel to have evolved the necessary traits to contemplate the universe in the first place. I quickly learned that many of these people still valued science, but never had the opportunity to become educated about evolution.

That realization motivated my passion for science communication and mentoring. [...]“

Now, I’m not claiming that’s perfect. It’s a draft that can obviously still do with some tweaking. And I realize I have to walk on egg shells and be politically correct if I actually want to get funded. It doesn’t matter if I’m being honest or if I’m technically right if I happen to get three Christian biologists who read this as a belligerent attack against their belief. Which is apparently how it came off to my reviewers.

Fine. Whatever. I don’t read it that way, but I guess I can see how you can read it to be negative. I thought I was being as diplomatic as I could possibly be, but apparently it’s still not diplomatic enough – I’ll have to change some of the wording.

If we would have stopped at “This could potentially be interpreted negatively,” I would not have been writing this post. But it didn’t. Some of my reviewers, including a professor, insisted that I was “dogmatic,” and “wanted people to believe in evolution just because that’s what you happen to believe in.” That rejecting evolution isn’t a “terrible” attitude. That I shouldn’t be “shocked” that some biology majors don’t believe in evolution, because not everyone has to be like me. That wanting to help people learn about evolution means I thought they were stupid.

That I came off as, I quote, “Dawkins-esque.”

I think that was supposed to be negative remark, but I took it as a compliment.

I fumed the whole bus ride home, wishing I could have responded then and there – but a meeting for a review of your work is not the place for a philosophical debate. But these are things I hear over and over – not just from professors and classmates I like and respect who accept evolution but think I’m too “dogmatic” about promoting it. Because they’re so common, I feel that it’s important that I address those types of ideas here.

1. Wanting people to adopt an evidence-based view of the universe is not dogmatic. In fact, it’s the very opposite of dogma. I want people to be able to change their minds when confronted with new evidence. Admitting you were wrong is one of the most intellectually honest things you can do. The only “dogmatic” thing about living in reality is that some things are true, and some things are not. You don’t get to flap your arms and start flying through the air just because you wish that was the way the universe works.

2. I don’t want people to “believe in evolution because that’s what I believe in.” I want people to accept evolution because there’s an insurmountable mountain of evidence supporting it. This isn’t a subjective opinion that’s up for debate. I’m not forcing people to think that chocolate ice cream with peanut butter swirls is the best flavor (though it totally is). To deny evolution is either based on ignorance or willful delusion. I know, what mean words. That doesn’t make them less true. People have either not learned about evolution or not had it explained to them well, or they’re people who go and build Creation Museums and think people walked with dinosaurs because of their religious convictions. There may be less hope at getting the latter to accept evolution, but being a science educator is important to me, and I want to tackle the “ignorance” side of that equation.

In my future draft, I plan to explicitly say that I accept evolution because of that mountain of evidence. I thought that would be self-evident to biologist NSF reviewers, but might as well be safe…

3. Rejecting evolution is certainly a “terrible” attitude. Again, why should we pat people on the back for ignoring scientific facts?

4. We don’t give chemistry degrees to people who believe in alchemy. We don’t give aerospace engineering degrees to people who think planes are held up by fairies. We don’t give geology degrees to people who think the Earth is made of chocolate pudding.  But we have no problem giving biology degrees to people who think an invisible supernatural being created life, despite it having as much evidence as Puddingology. I should feel shocked that people who reject the fundamental concepts of their field can still successfully earn a degree.

5. I don’t think that everyone who rejects evolution is stupid. I do, however, think they are wrong. Those things are not equivalent. And when ignorance – the lack of information – is the cause of their rejection, that can be fixed. And should be fixed – but apparently it’s dogmatic to think people should be educated.

Why do I even need to have this discussion? Why, if I had proposed educating people about gravity or plate tectonics, would there have been no debate? Why would any other drive to educate be seen as positive, rather than dogmatic? Why are we expected to roll over and simply accept that some people are going to ignore the fact of evolution?

Because religion is protected in our culture. Telling someone they’re wrong is “dogmatic” if it’s contradicting their religious beliefs even if, you know, they’re wrong. Mincing words and avoiding hurt feelings is more important than education and reality.

Religion does not deserve this special status. We don’t have to tiptoe around, pretending the universe bends to their wishes when all of the evidence says otherwise.

Of course, I have to wonder if this whole “dogmatic” thing came up because later in my personal statement I mention my involvement with some secular organizations. They were relevent – I talk about various pro-science events we’ve done, and the organizational and leadership skills I’ve gained from them. Or if it came up because these people aren’t reading my proposal in a vacuum – they all know I’m a strident, outspoken atheist in my free time. Even if I don’t say that in my proposal and I mince words as much as possible, that knowledge still colors their interpretation. Without the atheism side, would my drive to educate about evolution have been a problem? Did my classmates who mentioned teaching students about evolution in their applications get called dogmatic?

I hate that I even have to wonder about it.

In which I’m interviewed by an Aussie

Jack Scanlan of Young Australian Skeptics interviewed me for their podcast while we were at TAM, and it’s online! I had to listen to it since I had no idea what I said. TAM feels like it was eons ago, and our interview time slot was wretchedly early. But if you want to hear me talk about blogging and my research, plus me trying not to make lewd jokes at the end, it’s worth the time. My bit starts at about the 4 minute mark.

Now I want to go doodle me saying “IT’S BLOGGING TIME!” as I transform into some sort of Blogging Superhero. Well, what I really want is for someone else to doodle it, because I am lazy. Oh well.

The shackles of academia

You may have noticed that I took down my previous post. Why? Because apparently it was being perceived as burning bridges with people in my department, which was not what I intended. I just thought it was a starting point for an important and relevant discussion about evolution education.

And if I had to name the number one thing that I hate about graduate school, it would have to be this. I feel like I can’t be as intellectually honest as I used to. I can’t talk about certain things. I can’t explain what cool projects I’m working on or I may be scooped by another researcher. I can’t criticize…well, anyone even remotely related to my field, especially not people in my department, because it would basically be the end of my career. Because academia is like pretty much everything else in this world – who you know is the most important thing. If people don’t like you, good luck ever getting a job anywhere.

So, you guys notice how I haven’t been blogging as much? It’s pretty much because of this. I have interesting things running through my mind all the time, but my tongue is tied. I’m not a tenured professor like PZ.

Bah.

EDIT: After much deliberation, I have decided to restore the post with some edits here.

The Outbreak

The following is closely based on a very vivid dream I had last night. It was interesting enough that I wanted to type it up as a fun creative writing exercise – enjoy.

—-

A plane skidded to a stop on the runway. I hoped it was hers – I didn’t want to spend another moment in this parking lot.

Though I suppose I felt safe in the car. Relatively safe, at least. The outbreak had recently spread to Seattle, though the viral levels in the air were still low enough that you could risk going outside. Not that you’d want to go outside, with the constant drizzle and gloom and all. But sitting in the car felt like there was some sort of vacuum seal keeping me safe. I tried not to think about all of the cracks in my old Camry that were plenty big enough for viruses to squeeze through.

“Stop looking so bloody cross,” said my friend Matt, who was hunched over in the passenger seat fiddling with his phone. “Weren’t you excited to see her just a week ago?”

I glared at him. “Yes, you know, before an unknown epidemic started sweeping across the nation. No biggy.”

“Jen, it’s probably just a new strain of the flu. Like…I dunno, what animal have we not had a flu hybrid from yet? Lizard flu? Do lizards get the flu?”

“It’s not just the flu. Why is the media saying to stay inside?”

“Don’t they say that in Seattle in October anyway?”

I was about to reply to his smartassery, but my train of thought was derailed by another car pulling into the spot next to ours. Terrible grunge music blasted so loudly that the frame of my car was shaking. It was a stereotype on wheels. Three teen boys slumped in their seats, with the type of clothes that looked like they had specifically been selected to make them look homeless. The driver had long, bright red hair that had never seen a hair brush before. For some reason this offended me more than the outdated grunge music they were subjecting me to.

“See, you’re on edge,” quipped Matt. “Ignore them, they’re just punks.”

“Why have my friends in Eastern Washington stopped answering my Facebook messages?”

“Because they’re too busy sleeping off the flu?” I glared at Matt again. “Look, that’s all it does. It makes you sleepy. Consider it a blessing if you get it – you’ll have an excuse to not go to the lab.”

“I don’t understand how I’m apparently the only one concerned about an unidentifiable virus rapidly spreading through the population with unknown long-term symptoms.”

“Jen.”

Whose ground zero is only a couple of miles away from me.”

“Jen!”

“I’m not overreacting!”

“It’s not that – isn’t that her?”

I turned my attention back to the car of hooligans. And sure enough, there was Greta Christina. I heard a muffled “You must be from the Secular Student Union!” before she got into their car. And not mine.

I jumped out of my car, vacuum seal be damned. “Greta!” What the hell was she doing?

The red-head turned to me with a devilish grin before throwing the car in reverse and peeling backward across the parking lot. I saw a look of confusion and dart across Greta’s face, but then the car zipped off.

Matt hopped out of my car. “What the hell is going on?”

“Get the fuck back in the car!” I screamed, throwing myself back into the driver’s seat. Matt’s legs were still dangling out as I threw it into reverse, before peeling off in pursuit of the unexpected kidnappers.

“You’re driving like a madwoman!” he cried, desperately trying to buckle himself in. I ignored him as I weaved through the cars on I-5, even more upset than usual with their sluggishly slow driving. The car with Greta was far ahead – I was losing sight of it with every twist of the windy interstate. Faster, I needed to go faster.

“Why would she even come?” I cursed, cutting off another car.

Matt clutched the dash as he gave me a bewildered look. “That’s what you’re on about? Not “Why did my friend just randomly get kidnapped?””

“They have to be related.” The bus lane was mine for now. Screw the consequences.

“What does kidnapping have to do with the flu?”

“Shit, they’re going onto the 520?” I hardly glanced at my mirrors as I swerved into the exit  lane. Matt let out a squeal.

They were far ahead, too far ahead. I hit a clump of traffic – fucking Seattle drivers – but I couldn’t even drive along the shoulder. The 520 bridge over Lake Washington was too goddamn narrow. I tailgated the car in front of me, honking, hoping they’d get a clue. There was empty road ahead, but of course these drivers felt the need to drive side by side. Finally they took the exit once we were on dry land. I gunned it on the winding road, trying to peer ahead through the thick evergreen trees on the hilly landscape. Suddenly, the street was filled with blinking lights.

“Jesus fuck!”

I slammed on the brakes. There was a barricade of police cars – at least, there used to be a barricade.  The kidnappers’ car had slammed into the nearest police car – the kids were apparently driving more recklessly than I was. I drove up slowly, and to my relief, Greta got out of the car unscathed.

I parked the car and hopped out. “Greta! Greta, over here!”

“Jen!” She waved excitedly, apparently unperturbed by the situation. “You got me good! For a second I thought that was a real kidnapping! What a thrill!”

I looked at her like she had declared her intention to become a nun. “…Just get in the car, we should go back to campus where it’s safe!”

“Oh, but how about your friends?”

My “friends” had also gotten out of the car. The stared at Greta coldly, almost hungrily. That’s when I looked past them. We weren’t alone. There were dozens of people slowly walking toward us, climbing over the police cars. The police cars which were devoid of police officers. I fixated on the mob. They were unkempt, scabby…some looked like they had been shot, though were unphased by their wounds. I focused in on a woman whose face was sloughing off.

Even for Eastern Washington, this was not normal.

Fuck.

I ran forward and grabbed Greta’s hand. “Get in the car, NOW.”

“Oh, it’s already 6pm? I guess we shouldn’t be late for my talk.”

I didn’t have time to give her an incredulous look. I spotted a shotgun and extra rounds out of the corner of my eye, haphazardly left by an unfortunate police officer. Leave it to Seattle police to leave their guns lying around. But if this was what I thought it was…I might be needing this.

I darted back to the car, speeding off before the shambling horde could close in. Matt and Greta exchanged pleasantries as I nearly vomited from the stress. I knew we needed to get to the university. We could lock ourselves in the lecture hall, call for help, maybe wait it out. Maybe someone there would know what’s going on. Maybe someone there would care.

We arrived on campus in record time, and I shuffled Greta and Matt into the large lecture hall. People were already sitting at desks, anxiously awaiting her talk. Someone had brought piles of candy in honor of Halloween, and people were giggling as they gobbled up the sugar. I still couldn’t believe it. Why in the world did people care about a talk about atheism when – dare I say it – a fucking zombie virus was on the loose? Were they all on drugs?

Was I on drugs?

Like some sort of scientific blessing, my department head walked in and headed for a seat.Thank god – thank whatever that he was coming to this talk. He was intelligent and level-headed – I knew I could talk to him.

“Bob!” I panted. I didn’t even realize I was panting until then. I was a nervous wreck, sweat dripping from my face. “Do you know what’s going on with this virus?”

He smiled at me. “It’s good that you’re concerned, but don’t worry about it.”

I blinked. “But…we’re scientists. Aren’t we the people who are supposed to drop everything so we can go slave away in the lab, looking for a cure? I know this isn’t a movie, but-”

He laughed and put his hand on my shoulder. “Already ahead of you. Why look for a cure when you can prevent the disease to begin with?”

I narrowed my eyes. “We…we have a vaccine?”

He put a finger up to his lips. “I’m really not supposed to tell you, but yes. Most of UW has been working on it since the initial outbreak. It was an excellent way to test our new mechanism for delivery, too. Pumped it into the whole West Coast’s water supply, and now everyone should be fine.”

“You…what? That’s…that’s unethical!”

“Well, it’s good that it has the side effect of…well, it’s like being a little stoned, I suppose. You’re relaxed and don’t really care about what’s going on around you. As you can see,” he said, gesturing to the crowd of people who were more interested in an atheist blogger than a zombie attack, “everyone is very content.”

Everyone was on drugs, apparently.

“Well I most certainly am not content. We…we have real life zombies. Zombies, Bob.” I grabbed his shoulders. “ZOMBIES. Zombies are coming and nobody cares!”

“Ah, well you must have a rare genetic variant that makes you immune to the psychoactive effects. Very interesting, you should get Debbie to sequence your genome-”

“Bob, do we even know if this vaccine will work?”

He paused. It was like concern was desperately trying to work its way across his face, but the drugs were too strong. Rational Bob was buried in there, but far, far down. “Jennifer, we slapped together an experimental vaccine for a newly discovered virus in a matter of weeks. As great as our institution is, there’s a large probability of failure.” A look of horror swept over my face. “At least if we do fail, we’ll be happy in the end. …Well, most of us.”

“Braaaaaiiinnnnnsss.” The groan came from the far door, which swung open to reveal my other professor…in a more decaying state. At least, apparently decaying. It was tough to tell if it was movie makeup or genuine zombification. Halloween was just around the corner, after all.

I cradled the shotgun defensively. “Mike, now is NOT the time to fuck with me.” Bob was oblivious to the situation, and went off to find a seat for the upcoming lecture.

“Urrrrghhhh” he groaned, shambling down the steps of the auditorium toward me.

“Mike, I’m serious.” The last thing I wanted to do was shoot a professor who was playing a dumb prank thanks to being high on who knows what.

“Uunnffffff.” Closer still.

Scratch that. The last thing I wanted to do was to be wrong, and to be turned into a zombie. I needed to show him that I was serious. I aimed the shotgun forward.

“This is your last chance.”

Another step forward.

BANG.

The door frame now had a singed hole.

“Christ,” cried a startled Mike. “That gun is real? …You were going to shoot me?”

“I was showing you that I would shoot you. A zombie wouldn’t have cared.”

A groan and a thud came from the back door. I glared at Mike. “Really, you had your grad students dress up too?”

He shrugged. “Nah, they thought it was dumb.”

My breath caught in my throat. Still gripping the shotgun tightly, I quickly made my way to the back door. I peered through the freshly made shotgun hole.

I was pretty sure undergrads don’t typically look that decayed.

With a gulp, I flipped the lock and dragged a desk in front of the door. I cursed myself for putting a not-insignificant hole in our last defense against the undead.

“What, are we not letting any more people in?” Greta asked.

I stared at her blankly. They all had no idea what was going on. No one did. I was the only person here with any grasp of reality, and I had no clue how to reload a shotgun. “At capacity. Why don’t you start the talk and keep everyone entertained?”

“Sure thing!” she said excitedly, and made her way to the lectern.

“Sorry if I don’t pay close attention.” I perched on a desk and pointed my shotgun at the hole. A rotting finger slithered through from the outside. “I’ve heard this talk before.”