Attack of the Giant Prehistoric Chicken!

Gigantoraptor

“We have a gigantic chicken!”

This is about the funnest thing I’ve seen all week.

We all know that birds evolved from dinosaurs, right? But until now, the fossil record that we had showed that the creatures got smaller and smaller as they evolved away from being dinosaurs and into being birds.

Not this baby. This baby is more than 26 feet long and 16-1/2 feet tall, and is estimated to have weighed at least a ton and half. And it was a young adult — so it wasn’t even the biggest one of its species.

And it’s a bird.

(Well, okay, a “bird-like species.”)

My favorite quote is from the paleontologist who discovered it, Xu Xing: “When I went back to my geologist colleague Lin Tan’s lab to check the skeleton, I was shocked. I said to Tan, ‘It is not a sauropod, it is not a tyrannosaurus, it is a tyrannosaurus-sized oviraptor. We have a gigantic chicken!'”

This makes me happier than I can put into words.

(Via SFGate and Pharyngula. SFGate has a couple more pictures. The one above is the most scientific, but I personally like this artist’s conception the best. It somehow manages to make the thing look both ferocious and campy.)

Dinosaurs

No Sex Please, We’re Democrats: The Blowfish Blog

CongressSo a a House subcommittee recently voted, not only to continue funding abstinence-only sex education, but to increase funding for it by $27.8 million.

To see me rant about this — er, analyze it and put it in context — come visit the Blowfish Blog. Here’s a taste:

Very few people — and even fewer politicians — are willing to look at teenage sex and say in public, “It turns out this really isn’t a big problem.” Very few politicians are willing to say, “We have bigger issues to worry about than 16-year-olds having sex.” Very, very, very few politicians are willing to say, “You know, I had sex when I was 16, and it didn’t do me any harm.”

Check it out. And then write your Congressperson.

“Many are finding welcome relief…”

Dilatherm

“Many are finding welcome relief through the gentle vibration, adjustable soothing heat, and dilation provided by the Dila-Therm.”

Yeah, I bet they are.

I think this is hilarious. I knew about the history of vibrators, and how early/ vintage vibrators were marketed to women as health and beauty aids — in language that barely disguised their real intent. But I had no idea until now that, at the same time, there were butt toys for men being sold in the exact same way.

Now, I do understand that this might actually work as a treatment for prostatitis — in that anything that makes you come on a regular basis can be an effective treatment for prostatitis. But given that the ad was found, not in a medical journal or health magazine, but in a 1949 copy of “Detective World Magazine”… let’s just say that I have my doubts as to the device’s real intention.

Via Majikthise. Which, by the way, is the coolest blog name ever.

Joined At the Brainstem: Relationships and Privacy

Speak_2Several years ago, I read a piece of relationship advice that always stuck with me. (I wish I could find it now; but I can’t, so I’m going to have to paraphrase.) It was by a lesbian relationship adviser, and she said that in the first six months of her relationship with her partner, they had a rule that, if one of them asked, “What are you thinking right now?” the other had to answer, completely honestly and spontaneously.

BrainstemThe advice writer said that, while this obviously was difficult and painful at times — both for the asker and the askee — it “worked.” At the end of the six months, she said, “we were joined at the brainstem.”

This was before I got together with Ingrid, back in my single days, and at the time, I remember thinking, “What a bad idea.” In fact, it struck me so strongly as a bad idea that I remembered it all these years.

But now that I’ve been in a serious relationship for close to ten years, my feelings have changed somewhat. Now I think about the idea of sharing every passing thought with your partner on demand, and I don’t think, “What a bad idea.”

I think, “What an appalling, unbelievably stupid, extraordinarily horrible idea.”

Brainstem_2Okay. Two reasons. First, we have the actual stated goal of this little exercise: joining with your partner at the brainstem.

Why is that a good idea? Why is that something you’d want?

Brain2I like that Ingrid has her own brain. I like Ingrid’s brain. It’s a good brain. And it’s good in ways that are often very different from my own. The fact that Ingrid has her very own brain means that she can surprise me. She can make me think about things differently. She can make me question my ideas and assumptions. And possibly more important than any of this, she can make me laugh.

None of which she could do if we were “joined at the brainstem.”

After close to ten years together, of course we know each other very well indeed. Of course we sometimes finish each other’s sentences, sometimes know exactly what the other person is going to say. But not always. And while of course I treasure how well we know each other and how close we are, I also treasure the fact that, nearly ten years into our life together, we’re still learning about each other.

Second, and maybe more importantly:

Brain4Having your own thoughts and feelings — which you can share with others or not as you choose — that’s one of the central defining characteristics of being, you know, a person. An individual. A being with some sort of selfhood.

And the idea that you should give that up when you get in a relationship gives me chills.

Now obviously, when you get into a relationship, you give up a certain amount of privacy. The closer the relationship gets, the more privacy you give up. And of course, different people need different amounts of privacy. Some couples are fine having their partner in the bathroom with them while they pee; others need to live in separate apartments.

PrivacyBut the privacy of the inside of your own head? That’s really basic. That’s a huge part of what makes you who you are.

Why would you want to take that away? Either from your partner or yourself?

BitchAnd I’m not even getting into the potential rudeness and hurtfulness of the exercise. I mean, it’s not as if every fleeting thought that passes through my head is one that I really stand by, or even think is true. If I have to hurt Ingrid by telling her something she doesn’t want to hear, I bloody well want it to be something that matters — not some petty, selfish, mean-spirited bitchiness that happened to be crossing my synapses at the exact moment she was asking, “Honey, what are you thinking?”

Telepathy2Maybe I’m being unfairly judgmental here. Maybe this “complete and unedited honesty on demand” thing is just a greater degree of intimacy and a lesser degree of privacy than I’m personally comfortable with. But it just seems like an unbelievably bad idea. Especially for lesbian couples. Lesbian couples already have enough of a tendency to merge, to lose their individual identities in each other and in the couple-identity. And the whole thing that’s cool about a relationship is that it’s a balance between intimacy and selfhood. You can’t have intimacy if you don’t have different people, with different identities, to come together and connect. The idea that more closeness is always better in a relationship is, IMO, a seriously dumb one.

So am I being too judgmental here? Have any of you ever done the “complete and unedited honesty on demand” thing in a relationship? If so, how did it work out? If not, is it an idea that appeals to you? I’m weirded out — but I’m also curious.

Humanist Symposium #3

The Humanist Symposium #3 is up at Black Sun Journal. This is a neat blog carnival devoted to positive atheist blog posts around the blogosphere — i.e., posts about atheism that talk about what’s good about atheism, rather than what’s bad about religion. There’s some good, smart writing in the carnival, and if you’re interested in atheist ideas but don’t like all the griping, you should definitely check it out. They were kind enough to include my two-part “Atheist Identity” ramblings, Not a Butler, Either and Stranger in an Increasingly Strange Land, on what it means to have an atheist identity and why I think it’s important. So thanks, humanists.

Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God

I cite this piece a lot on my blog, so I decided I should post it here. It was originally published in the Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 29 #2 (March/April 2005).

HandSo here’s the problem. If you don’t believe in God or an afterlife; or if you believe that the existence of God or an afterlife are fundamentally unanswerable questions; or if you do believe in God or an afterlife but you accept that your belief is just that, a belief, something you believe rather than something you know — if any of that is true for you, then death can be an appalling thing to think about. Not just frightening, not just painful. It can be paralyzing. The fact that your lifespan is an infinitesimally tiny fragment in the life of the universe, and that there is, at the very least, a strong possibility that when you die, you disappear completely and forever, and that in five hundred years nobody will remember you and in five billion years the Earth will be boiled into the sun: this can be a profound and defining truth about your existence that you reflexively repulse, that you flinch away from and refuse to accept or even think about, consistently pushing to the back of your mind whenever it sneaks up, for fear that if you allow it to sit in your mind even for a minute, it will swallow everything else. It can make everything you do, and everything anyone else does, seem meaningless, trivial to the point of absurdity. It can make you feel erased, wipe out joy, make your life seem like ashes in your hands. Those of us who are skeptics and doubters are sometimes dismissive of people who fervently hold beliefs they have no evidence for simply because they find them comforting — but when you’re in the grip of this sort of existential despair, it can be hard to feel like you have anything but that handful of ashes to offer them in exchange.

PeaceBut here’s the thing. I think it’s possible to be an agnostic, or an atheist, or to have religious or spiritual beliefs that you don’t have certainty about, and still feel okay about death. I think there are ways to look at death, ways to experience the death of other people and to contemplate our own, that allow us to feel the value of life without denying the finality of death. I can’t make myself believe in things I don’t actually believe — Heaven, or reincarnation, or a greater divine plan for our lives — simply because believing those things would make death easier to accept. And I don’t think I have to, or that anyone has to. I think there are ways to think about death that are comforting, that give peace and solace, that allow our lives to have meaning and even give us more of that meaning — and that have nothing whatsoever to do with any kind of God, or any kind of afterlife.

TimeHere’s the first thing. The first thing is time, and the fact that we live in it. Our existence and experience are dependent on the passing of time, and on change. No, not dependent — dependent is too weak a word. Time and change are integral to who we are, the foundation of our consciousness, and its warp and weft as well. I can’t imagine what it would mean to be conscious without passing through time and being aware of it. There may be some form of existence outside of time, some plane of being in which change and the passage of time is an illusion, but it certainly isn’t ours.

Willow_treeAnd inherent in change is loss. The passing of time has loss and death woven into it: each new moment kills the moment before it, and its own death is implied in the moment that comes after. There is no way to exist in the world of change without accepting loss, if only the loss of a moment in time: the way the sky looks right now, the motion of the air, the number of birds in the tree outside your window, the temperature, the placement of your body, the position of the people in the street. It’s inherent in the nature of having moments: you never get to have this exact one again.

Waltzing1And a good thing, too. Because all the things that give life joy and meaning — music, conversation, eating, dancing, playing with children, reading, thinking, making love, all of it — are based on time passing, and on change, and on the loss of an infinitude of moments passing through us and then behind us. Without loss and death, we don’t get to have existence. We don’t get to have Shakespeare, or sex, or five-spice chicken, without allowing their existence and our experience of them to come into being and then pass on. We don’t get to listen to Louis Armstrong without letting the E-flat disappear and turn into a G. We don’t get to watch “Groundhog Day” without letting each frame of it pass in front of us for a 24th of a second and then move on. We don’t get to walk in the forest without passing by each tree and letting it fall behind us; we don’t even get to stand still in the forest and gaze at one tree for hours without seeing the wind blow off a leaf, a bird break off a twig for its nest, the clouds moving behind it, each manifestation of the tree dying and a new one taking its place.

IciclesAnd we wouldn’t want to have it if we could. The alternative would be time frozen, a single frame of the film, with nothing to precede it and nothing to come after. I don’t think any of us would want that. And if we don’t want that, if instead we want the world of change, the world of music and talking and sex and whatnot, then it is worth our while to accept, and even love, the loss and the death that make it possible.

Whole_earthHere’s the second thing. Imagine, for a moment, stepping away from time, the way you’d step back from a physical place, to get a better perspective on it. Imagine being outside of time, looking at all of it as a whole — history, the present, the future — the way the astronauts stepped back from the Earth and saw it whole.

Timeline1Keep that image in your mind. Like a timeline in a history class, but going infinitely forward and infinitely back. And now think of a life, a segment of that timeline, one that starts in, say, 1961, and ends in, say, 2037. Does that life go away when 2037 turns into 2038? Do the years 1961 through 2037 disappear from time simply because we move on from them and into a new time, any more than Chicago disappears when we leave it behind and go to California?

ParisIt does not. The time that you live in will always exist, even after you’ve passed out of it, just like Paris exists before you visit it, and continues to exist after you leave. And the fact that people in the 23rd century will probably never know you were alive… that doesn’t make your life disappear, any more than Paris disappears if your cousin Ethel never sees it. Your segment on that timeline will always have been there. The fact of your death doesn’t make the time that you were alive disappear.

GalaxyAnd it doesn’t make it meaningless. Yes, stepping back and contemplating all of time and space can be daunting, can make you feel tiny and trivial. And that perception isn’t entirely inaccurate. It’s true; the small slice of time that we have is no more important than the infinitude of time that came before we were born, or the infinitude that will follow after we die.

But it’s no less important, either.

Fetus_da_vinciI don’t know what happens when we die. I don’t know if we come back in a different body, or if we get to hover over time and space and view it in all its glory and splendor, or if our souls dissolve into the world-soul the way our bodies dissolve into the ground, or if, as seems very likely, we simply disappear. I have no idea. And I don’t know that it matters. What matters is that we get to be alive. We get to be conscious. We get to be connected with each other, and with the world, and we get to be aware of that connection and to spend a few years mucking about in its possibilities. We get to have a slice of time and space that’s ours. As it happened, we got the slice that has Beatles records and Thai restaurants and AIDS and the Internet. People who came before us got the slice that had horse-drawn carriages and whist and dysentery, or the one that had stone huts and Viking invasions and pigs in the yard. And the people who come after us will get the slice that has, I don’t know, flying cars and soybean pies and identity chips in their brains. But our slice is no less important because it comes when it does, and it’s no less important because we’ll leave it someday. The fact that time will continue after we die does not negate the time that we were alive. We are alive now, and nothing can erase that.

Carnival of the Godless: Lost Secrets

CarnivalThe new Carnival of the Godless is up, this time at Action Skeptics, and they were once again kind enough to include my blog in their round-up, this time with my piece on Barack Obama. (This week’s Carnival of the Godless has a very funny “Lost Secrets” theme, a la the Dead Sea Scrolls/ Raiders of the Lost Ark.)

MagazinesBTW, it’s been called to my attention that I haven’t explained very clearly what these “carnivals” are that I keep gassing on about. So let me explain. A blog carnival is a sort of round-up of recent blog posts on a particular theme or topic. It’s a little like a magazine, a way of sorting through the kajillion blogs in the blogosphere and finding the stuff that interests you. There are blog carnivals about comics, salsa dancing, Harry Potter, small business strategy, homeschooling, pizza, military history, knitting, feminist science fiction and fantasy, HIV and AIDS, left-wing politics, right-wing politics, Bible studies, spirit channeling, global warming, cats, and… well, you know. It’s the Net. Everything. (Of course, this being me, so far the ones I’ve been part of have been about atheism and liberal politics.)

TrafficIf you’re a blogger, carnivals are a good way to draw traffic to your blog — I wish I’d tracked onto them a whole lot sooner. If you’re interested or just curious about what carnivals are out there, check out this Blog Carnival index. (If you’re a blogger trying to find a carnival for you, be sure to focus on the ones that have a “next edition” date listed — if they don’t, they’re probably moribund.) Have fun at the circus!

Get Out of Jail Free: Paris Hilton and the Justice System

EiffeltowerCongratulations, universe.

You win.

You made me care about Paris Hilton.

Not sure if y’all have heard, but Paris Hilton was released from jail after serving three days of her sentence (probation violation in a reckless driving case), and is being allowed to serve the rest of her sentence under house arrest. The reason? An “unspecified medical problem.”

And I care.

I’m furious.

Jail1Because if you, or I, or anyone we know, were sentenced to 45 days in jail for violating probation on a reckless driving charge, you can be damn sure we’d be serving every day of our time. No goddamn medical condition would be getting us out. I’m sure new prisoners develop medical conditions all the damn time — jail is horrible and profoundly stressful — and they don’t get out in three days because they’re not feeling well. Nobody but Paris Hilton gets to call in sick from jail. There is a compassionate release program for terminally ill prisoners — but it’s unbelievably harsh. You have to be pretty much right at death’s door to qualify for it.

StopsnitchingAnd people wonder why folks are cynical and mistrustful about the legal system; why some young people are taking on “stop snitching” as an ethical standard. If anyone has any doubts at all about how broken and corrupt our justice system is, how completely 100% opposite it is to what a justice system should be, this should blast those doubts into shrapnel.

(P.S. The picture of the Eiffel Tower is there because I couldn’t stomach the thought of having that vacant rat-faced smirk on my blog.)

——————–

Addendum: She’s back on her way to jail.

Good.

I’m tempted to say “okay, maybe sometimes the system works.” Except… how many other rich influential folks are getting special treatment by the justice system in cases that aren’t as well publicized and don’t raise as much of a shitstorm? And I’m not even talking about the day-to-day injustices: the “driving/ walking/ breathing while black” arrests, the greater penalties for crack cocaine than powder, yada yada.

The fact that it took a huge public outcry to get justice served for the spoiled princess isn’t a sign that the system works. It’s a further sign of just how broken it is.

The New “Zoo” Review: The Blowfish Blog

ZooThose of you who remember my movie reviews for the Bay Times and the Spectator and have told me that you miss them, you’re in luck. I’m going to be reviving my long-dormant fim critic career, and will be intermittently using my new gig at the Blowfish Blog to review mainstream and art-house (i.e., non-porn) movies that have interesting content about sex. And I’m starting with the new documentary about zoophilia, “Zoo”:

The movie is about bestiality.

I want to tell you that right up front, since it takes a while for the movie to get around to it. A little more specifically, “Zoo” is a documentary about a 2005 incident in which a man died of a perforated colon after engaging in sexual activity with — read “getting fucked in the ass by” — a horse. And it’s about the small group of people — other zoophiles, or “zoos” — who shared these sexual activities and interests as a community: talking about it on the Internet, engaging in it at small gatherings, and sometimes photographing or filming it.

To read the rest, read the Blowfish blog! And if you know of any new movies with interesting stuff about sex — good or bad — please be sure to let me know.

That’s Not What We Meant: Hate Crime Laws, Round 2

Hate_crimeI think that those of us who support hate crime laws — and I do — have a moral obligation to speak out when they’re mis-applied. If we’re going to argue — as I do — that they’re substantially different from hate speech laws or rules and don’t constitute a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech, I think we need to speak out when they get applied in a way that is unconstitutional and does restrict free speech.

And it seems like that’s what’s happened in a case in which teenage girls who distributed anti-homosexual fliers at their high school were charged with a hate crime. (The original news article about it has expired off the web, alas, but you can get details here and here.)

LynchingSo I think it’s important to say: No. That’s not what we meant. Hate crime laws mean that when you kill someone or beat them to a pulp because they’re gay or black or Muslim (or for that matter, straight or white or Christian), it’s a more serious crime than killing someone or beating them to a pulp because they dented your car or slept with your girlfriend, and it deserves a harsher penalty.

They don’t mean that you get hit with a hate crime charge for distributing flyers. No matter how hateful they are.

JusticeNow, I don’t think a single misapplied arrest proves that hate crime laws are bad laws. I mean, laws against murder and rape and assault get misapplied all the time, and I don’t see anyone screaming for those laws to be overturned.

LaramieAnd I understand that this case may not be as simple as it seems on the surface. If one or both of these girls committed some other serious crime, and the prosecutors think it was motivated by anti-gay hatred, then I could see the flyers being admissible as evidence of a hateful motivation in that other crime.

But the distribution of the flyers itself?

No.

That should not be a crime.

First_amendmentThat is most emphatically not what we meant.