Happy 25th, Fall of the Berlin Wall!

Twenty-five years since that wall came down. I was a teenager, watching on teevee as citizens pulled it apart, climbed up on it and celebrated, uniting Germany. I remember being astonished that it was happening in my lifetime, and feeling giddy as I watched people reach out and grasp freedom with both hands. It was awesome.

The Scorpions captured the mood of the late 80s and early 90s well, as people in Eastern Bloc countries wrested political control from their masters, and embraced democracy. Winds of change definitely were blowing.

The Cold War ended. And spy novel writers everywhere had to find a new Big Bad to write about…

Now if we could just end other wars, that would be outstanding. I’d love to see the world united. Yes, of course, we’d still have our differences and problems. No, of course it wouldn’t be perfect. But to be able to work things out without war, cold or hot? I’ll take it. Moar winds of change, plz.

Image shows people standing in front of and atop the Berlin Wall. One person is being helped up to the top by others.

People atop the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate on 09 November 1989. The text on the sign “Achtung! Sie verlassen jetzt West-Berlin” (“Notice! You are now leaving West Berlin”) has been modified with an additional text “Wie denn?” (“How?”). Also in blue is the logo for ONCE, whose cycling team was started in 1989. Image and caption by Sue Ream via Wikimedia Commons.

Bodacious Botany: Not Mace, I Said A Mace

You’ll understand the reason for the title in a moment, although if you’re a Doctor Who fan, you’re already sniggering.

Right, so, here we are. Due to my mad photo organizing skillz and an inordinate amount of British detective shows, I’ve now got a folder full o’ botany. I figure I might as well get some use out of the stuff, seeing as how so much of it covers my beloved geology round here. Sigh.

The title of our newest series refers to two things: the botany itself, which is bodacious, i.e., bold and audacious. Frequently, you see this stuff growing where no life should live, and doing it with a one-finger (British: two-finger) salute, or at least it would if it had fingers. The word also reminds me of Boudica, the Iceni queen who took exception to the Romans stealing her land and raping her daughters, and led an audacious uprising that trounced poorly-prepared Romans (I imagine they were all like, “An army led by a girl? Pfft. We can send a handful of warriors and kick her arse – whoops”). And yes, she was ultimately defeated, but not before she’d reportedly had Nero, that bastion of barstardry hisownself, reconsidering whether Britain was really worth all this. Not bad. She may not have ultimately won, but she was victorious enough to inspire generations of poets, playwrights, and politicians, not to mention people, so she wasn’t mis-named (she’d be a Victoria, translated into English).

So, there we are. Evocative title for our series, nice patina of history, lovely. Deserves an appropriately bold and audacious bit o’ botany to begin, and boy howdy, have I got it.

Bodacious Botany I

Bodacious Botany I

Just for comparison’s sake:

“Mace Action.” Image courtesy Josh Hallet (hyku) on Flickr.

Definitely resembles a mace, more than mace, although the color’s similar.

“Mace of nutmeg.” If you’ve ever wondered what mace (not a mace) is, it’s that red stuff round the nutmeg. Image courtesy Ramesh NG.

So our take-a-page-from-both-types-of-mace tree was fruiting out in September this year. It’s not a wild thing – it grows on our manicured grounds. That doesn’t stop it from looking pretty wild in a certain sense.

Bodacious Botany II

Bodacious Botany II

They’re not large fruits, but that doesn’t prevent them from looking like something you could use to beat someone to death with. Well, that, and they bear an uncanny resemblance to that bomb thingy in The Shadow (the movie). Of course, the interior is a little more mellow.

Bodacious Botany III

Bodacious Botany III

I took some bark shots, just for you, for the purpose of aiding in identification. I’m occasionally sensible enough to do such things.

Bodacious Botany IV

Bodacious Botany IV

Bodacious Botany V

Bodacious Botany V

And the whole tree, which I couldn’t get an artistic angle on, alas.

Bodacious Botany VI

Bodacious Botany VI

No, it’s not a big tree, but it is a bold and audacious tree, and a fitting subject for our first foray into the world of bodacious botany.

People Have Always Had a Hammer Ready for Uppity Women

Since getting the Kindle Fire, I’ve been teaching myself the history I never learned. School wasn’t big on freethinkers (although they were big on paens of praise for the Founding Fathers – the real secularist ones, not the weird rabid Christian ones that only exist in right wingers’ heads). My education glossed the suffragettes. It somehow left me thinking that women kicked up a brief fuss and got voting rights justlikethat, and that Susan B. Anthony had something to do with the American Revolution. Well, she was a revolutionary fighting a war of sorts, but I had her badly misplaced. Elizabeth Cady Stanton might have come up at some point – her name seemed familiar when I rediscovered her as a Freethinker – but if so, she wasn’t exactly expounded upon.

The impression I took away was that a woman’s right to vote was a natural evolution in American history, practically inevitable, and that bloomers were a big deal. I got the sense these women were rather freaks in their time. They were, but I don’t think the public school system meant me to think they were quite weird and somewhat undesirable.

But that’s exactly what anti-woman suffrage frothers wanted folks to think. Note the conservative hysteria in this series of political postcards. It should be depressingly familiar to anyone who’s followed the sexism and misogyny outbreaks in our community and the world at large recently.

Anti-suffragette postcards. Image courtesy ROFLrazzi.

The artwork is different, the issue of woman suffrage is (mostly) settled, but the sentiments are the same: Women speaking out for treatment as equal human beings hate men and want to dominate and destroy them. They’re ugly and masculine. Familiar silencing tactics, aren’t they? And there’s the terrible fear that the natural order of things will be overturned if the little ladies ever get so much as a hint of independence. Men won’t be able to get their way anymore! Women will voice their own opinions, wear pants, make men do housework! Horrors!*

In some ways, we’ve come very far. So far that every teacher throughout my education took it for granted that woman can and should vote. And yet we’re still stuck in the past in so many ways. Terrified, angry men in the atheist, skeptic and other communities freak out over feminism on a regular basis. Terrified, angry, authoritarian men in conservative, evangelical and fundamentalist religions, along with others on the political right who may not be so overtly religious but still have definite Ideas about a woman’s place, would like to see the clock set back to an era when birth control and abortion were illegal. Some have gone so far as to call woman suffrage “evil.” There are a lot of people who would reverse our gains and take away our right to vote if they could.

We’ve put up with this shit for a long time. We’ve faced down the attacks on our minds, our bodies, our personal safety. Most women have resisted the efforts to stuff them back in the house, into the role of housemaid and baby producer. We’ve fought for our right to vote, we’ve fought for birth control and legal abortion, and now we’re fighting to make sure those things aren’t taken away from us. We’re fighting gender roles that tell us girls can’t do math and boys don’t cry. We’re fighting the sexism and misogyny that infest every group of people which includes men who want to retain their dominance, and the women who enable their bad behavior. We’re fighting to be recognized as human beings, with all of the rights, responsibility and equality that entails.

The efforts to silence us didn’t work then. They won’t work now. Women voted. We voted pro-rape candidates down. We voted women in. Women are used to battles, and we’re used to the antics of those who want us to stop fighting.

We won our right to vote. We won on birth control and abortion. And we will continue to win. Those who want to take us back to the 19th century will eventually have to face the fact they’ve already lost, and are now merely dashing about like headless chickens in a doomed attempt to regain their supremacy.

Not even scathing postcards from the past will save them.


*Those last two are nightmares that sexist atheists mostly seem to have outgrown, but men in the Christian patriarchy movement seem terrified their servant-wives may break out of their bonds and decide gender roles are for suckaz. The fear of lady pants is still strong with some.


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Thomas Paine: “A Calamitous Necessity of Going On”

I’ve been reading the works of 18th and 19th century heretics. I feel cheated. My education elided freethinking. If mention of a freethinker was necessary, textbooks and teachers focused on something else they’d done, not the actual freethinking bit. This allowed Christians to slumber happily in the delusion that in days gone by, not a word was said against their religion except by icky people who got their asses kicked, or did nothing important at all, or didn’t matter in the least. And it left me with the impression that atheists had sprung up brand-new this (well, last, now) century. I thought everybody who ever meant anything had been religious of some sort, and of course our Founding Fathers were faithful.

And this, mind you, was in a school system that actually taught evolution, at least a little bit, and did a reasonable job inculcating secular values.

Later, I’d discover that many of our Founders were actually Deists. I heard about the Jefferson Bible, which has left me with an enduring image of that luxurious-haired head bent painstakingly over pages, his tongue plastered thoughtfully to a corner of his mouth, as he applied scissors to the Good Book and made a better one. I found out that many of the nominally Christian ones were the sort of Christians other Christians consider no better than atheists. I’ve come to understand why they shuffled religion off onto the side rails and tried to wall it off from government, which seems like a damned important thing to know. It also would’ve been nice to know what a fuss and drama the clerics stirred up then, howling over God being left out of the Constitution, because it would have allowed me to place their current cries in context now: sound and fury which could and should be ignored.

I’ve discovered that actual atheists existed before the 20th century, strikingly intelligent and courageous men and women, who risked their freedom and fortunes to follow their conscience.

But it’s a Deist I want to discuss at the moment.

Thomas Paine, painting by Auguste Millière. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Paine was a definite Deist. Read The Age of Reason, and you’ll have no doubt of that. But the man could take after religion in general and Christianity in particular just as thoroughly as any atheist, New, Gnu or Old. No wonder the frothing fundies would rather pretend he never existed.

There are two things I loved especially about The Age of Reason. The first is this, which answers those people who’d like to hang on to religion because, they say, it does some very nice things.

It is possible to believe, and I always feel pleasure in encouraging myself to believe it, that there have been men in the world who persuaded themselves that what is called a pious fraud, might, at least under particular circumstances, be productive of some good. But the fraud being once established, could not afterwards be explained; for it is with a pious fraud as with a bad action, it begets a calamitous necessity of going on.

But it’s in the second part of The Age of Reason that he really lets go. You see, when he’d written the first part, he didn’t have a copy of the Bible handy and couldn’t get one. He was going from memory, writing furiously in France because he knew he could be arrested at any moment, and he wanted to get this out. Once he was free and safe and had a copy of the – ahem – Good Book in hand, he could settle down to really dissect it. And dissect he did.

He wanted to get at the truth. “[Before],” he wrote, “any thing can be admitted as proved by Bible, the Bible itself must be proved to be true; for if the Bible be not true, or the truth of it be doubtful, it ceases to have authority, and cannot be admitted as proof of any thing.” So he set out to investigate whether the Bible could be proved true. Things looked shaky from the start:

To charger the commission of things upon the Almighty, which in their own nature, and by every rule of moral justice, are crimes, as all assassination is, and more especially the assassination of infants, is matter of serious concern. The Bible tells us, that those assassinations were done by the express command of God. To believe therefore the Bible to be true, we must unbelieve all our belief in the moral justice of God; for wherein could crying or smiling infants offend? And to read the Bible without horror, we must undo every thing that is tender, sympathising, and benevolent in the heart of man. Speaking for myself, if I had no other evidence that the Bible is fabulous, than the sacrifice I must make to believe it to be true, that alone would be sufficient to determine my choice.

Yeouch. Nowadays, I do believe he’d be called militant, strident, and mean by believers and faitheists alike.

Still, he didn’t stop there. He promised “evidence as even a priest cannot deny.” This, my darlings, is where a maniacal grin spread across my face, and I might even have cackled a little, and I said, “Thomas Paine, you were a genius.”

Because this is what he did:

The evidence that I shall produce in this case is from the books themselves; and I will confine myself to this evidence only. Were I to refer for proofs to any of the ancient authors, whom the advocates of the Bible call prophane authors, they would controvert that authority, as I controvert theirs: I will therefore meet them on their own ground, and oppose them with their own weapon, the Bible.

What follows is total devastation. I’m not quite sure how anyone Christian can read The Age of Reason and come away with their faith intact, unless they have the IQ of a developmentally disabled turnip, or flee into metaphor and mumbling about “sort of inspired in parts but not really literally true, and, y’know, people make mistakes and….  stuff.” I don’t know how anyone can claim with a straight face that this silly book is the perfect revealed word o’ god, or that even if it’s not actually authored by god, it’s still the greatest literary masterpiece ever. As Thomas Paine says in an aside, “This book, the Bible, is too ridiculous for criticism.” But criticize it he does. He didn’t even need a flamethrower to leave it in a smoldering heap.

This is why I laugh so heartily when people sputter, “But if you just read the Bible, you’d believe!” Those of us with at least two functioning neurons typically became atheists because we’d read the Bible, or at least major portions thereof (usually omitting the endless begats), and we’d seen it was, as Thomas Paine said, “too ridiculous.”

From now on, when people tell me inane things such as “read the Bible,” I’m just going to stuff the second part of The Age of Reason in their hands and say, “Read this first.” I see it as a little test. If their faith isn’t at least slightly shaken, I’ll know any further conversation with them is pointless, as they have got a brick where their brain should be.

Good old Thomas Paine. I know just who I’ll be celebrating this Fourth of July.

Hypatia Day

Hypatia of Alexandria

So I gets this message from Facebook, y’see – my Pharyngulite friend Cameron Cole inviting me to an event called Hypatia Day.  Brilliant!  A day for remembering one of the most remarkable women in history.  We need more of those.  And it’s worth punking off the Dojo till tomorrow for this.

This post is for those who just went, “Hypatia who?”  And for those who just went, “Hypatia – woo-hoo!”

I first got to know Hypatia whilst reading a book called Greek Society.  I’d been quite used to history being full of men, men, and more men.  Oh, and did I mention the men?  Sometimes it really did seem like history was his-story, with just the occasional smattering of, “Oh, and there was this cool female poet once – and did we mention these totally awesome men?”  The only ancient women I really knew were ladies like Cleopatra, and the history I’d learned concentrated more on their looks and their effect on men than on their brains.

Then came Greek Society, and this section of four pages talking about a philosopher, Hypatia of Alexandria.  Four pages, you say.  Big fucking deal.  But in a 223 page book spanning Greek history from Mycenaean civilization to the rise of Rome, four pages dedicated to one woman kinda is.

I’d never heard of her, but by the end of four pages, I was in love with her.  And Mr. Frost didn’t even talk about her that much – he spent a lot of his words setting her in context.  But he described her as having an “extravagant intelligence.”  There she was – mathematician, philosopher, astronomer – blazing like a supernova from those pages.  A woman pursuing the intellect and rationality in a very male world that at the time was beginning its slide into the Dark Ages.

Students came from all over the Hellenistic world to follow her.  Her father, Theon, a mathematician and last director of the magnificent Museion in Alexandria, admitted she overshadowed him.  Together, they wrote commentaries on such works as Ptolomey’s Almagest and Euclid’s Elements, works that went on to set the European intellectual world back on fire when they were rediscovered a thousand years later.  Enjoy rational thinking?  Tip a glass to Hypatia:

How important was the survival of Euclid’s Elements to the course of human history?  The Elements was the most influential textbook in history (Boyer, 1991, p.119).  As reformulated by Theon and Hypatia, the Elements became more than just a textbook on geometry.  It became the definitive guide on how to think clearly and reason logically.  The scientists Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton were all influenced by the Elements.  Newton’s interest in mathematics was awakened when he bought and read a copy of this book (Boyer, 1991, p. 391).  He used the style of the Elements, with formal propositions and rigorous proofs, in his Principia, the book which forms the foundation of modern physics.  All of modern mathematics employs the logical, deductive method that was introduced by the Elements.  In short, modern science and technology rests on the firm foundation laid down by Euclid’s Elements.

Yeah.  She’s all that.

All of her rationality and independence and intellect, not to mention her religious affiliation (i.e., not Christian), led a mob of Christians to murder.  Apparently, she was in the way of their brave new world.  So they stripped her naked, dragged her through the streets, and slashed her to death with pottery shards.  And the darkness got that much darker.  Politics and religion killed one of the most brilliant women in history.  Then they killed the city of Alexandria, its great library, and the intellectual genius of the ancient world.  Okay, so barbarians also had a little something to do with all that chaos and destruction, but still: vast majority of it was down to politics and religion.  Science almost didn’t survive, at least in the West.

But embers still burned, and got fanned to flame during the Renaissance.  Hypatia was so influential that Raphael wanted to put her front and center in his magnificent School of Athens.  Christianity shat on her again, refusing to allow a smart pagan woman murdered by Christians to have a part in a fresco created for the Pope’s personal library.  Raphael sneaked her in there anyway.  And there she is.  Do you see her?  She’s that elegant woman in white down towards the left who seems to stand apart from the tumult, for all she’s smack in the middle of it:

School of Athens

Someday, I really need to read up on her life.  I know so little about her.  But I know she was extraordinary, an incredible woman who took her place beside the leading intellectual lights of her day, and lead many others in her turn.  We owe it to her to tell her story.

I’m glad someone thought to give her this day.

Celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Click the link for his “The Other America” Speech.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Don’t go silent.  

On this day, we remember the power of dreams.  We remember the power of a great many good people all coming together for a just cause.  And we remember that the right words, symbolic actions, and a refusal to back down from demands for justice can remake the world.

Thank you, Dr. King. 

Pansophic Kitteh Sez: Read This Book

My cat may be homicidal, but she’s also a discerning reader. Here she is, drawing your attention to a particularly interesting passage in Guns, Germs and Steel:

I’m not sure which passage it was, alas. Too busy photographing the cat. It looks to be the Epilogue, but I can tell you that the entire book is an excellent read. You’ll never see the world in quite the same way again. And it answers that pesky question: why were Europeans the ones who pretty much took over the world?

Bad news for those who wish to believe in the inherent superiority of a subset of humanity, I’m afraid.

For those who haven’t read it, but like me spent years intending to, let this be your meaningful nudge: it’s a really fucking excellent book. And my cat says you should read it. When a homicidal feline places a meaningful paw on a book and recommends you peruse it, it’s probably safest just to do what she says.

The Cons Are So Very Fucked: A History

Devilstower has a fascinating take on America’s political history, and comes to some conclusions that don’t bode well for the Cons’ attempt at a comeback:

What the shift of 1992 represents isn’t just a dissatisfaction with Democrats, but the full integration of the southern base and the Christian right into the Republican Party. 1992 was the first year in which the Christian Coalition distributed voters guides through churches. With their traditional base across the country, the Christian Right, and the Solid South, Republicans had a position that made them nationally competitive with Democrats for the first time in half a century. Not only that, it gave them a party with enthusiasm at a time when most people were disgusted by politics as usual.

And that’s the real problem for the GOP.

Davis and Snowe are absolutely right to think that the move to twist the Republican Party around a social conservative base is costing them votes among moderates. It’s also the likely cause of the continued decline of Republican ID, which is now at levels that actually pass the worst of the Watergate era. The trouble is, it takes both the social conservaties and the fiscal conservatives for the Republicans to form a winning coalition. That’s why the first business of that Congress in 1994 was to pass laws rewarding the Christian Right that had returned them to power after so long in the wilderness.

Casting out the social conservatives now won’t lead to a winning position, because there are not enough fiscal conservatives to keep the GOP from being more than an afterthought. Sticking with the social conservatives, whose demands for action on their issues are both insatiable and whose positions are unpopular with the general public, is another route to failure. In forcing a merger between these two factions, Republicans gained temporary victory, at the cost of endless confusion and long term disaster.

It’s too early to pronounce the Republican party dead, but the prognosis sure doesn’t look good.

The Things I Learn Watching Teevee: Unusual Navigation Methods Edition

There’s this show called Warriors on the History Channel. This Green Beret guy named Terry Schappert runs around getting all misty-eyed with manly men all over the globe. His credulity grates sometimes. But what makes the show worth watching are tidbits like this, from the “Islands of Blood” episode:

Terry: To navigate these vessels, Hawaiian chiefs used the stars, as well as other surprising ways to judge ocean currents.

Hawaiian Boat Guy: “They have a set pattern. And the really experienced guys can feel them sitting on the deck by their testicles rolling around in their scrotum.”

I knew pre-compass navigation sometimes took balls, but I’d thought that was supposed to be metaphorical, not actual, balls.

It’s a weird world, innit?