It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Caine brings up a good point: the musical Hamilton is deeply flawed, failing to address native Americans or slavery adequately. This is an important concern because one of the things Hamilton does exactly right is break the myth of the Founding Fathers as demigods spreading enlightenment and justice and freedom across the land. It is appropriate to take it to task for not shattering all the myths.

But here’s the thing: I can simultaneously appreciate the wonderful music and the strong story, and recognize the validity of criticism. It does not detract from art to say it does this one thing really well, but it does this other thing poorly; it does not mean that Lin-Manuel Miranda needs to go back and rewrite everything, nor does it mean the critics have to shut up and accept it as is.

It means the story isn’t finished. It’s never finished. There’s always room for more great art that tells another part of the story, and we’ll always have new art that portrays another part of the beauty and tragedy of the human experience.

Weird creationist meme

This is apparently intended to be a criticism of evolution posted by a Jehovah’s Witness. I don’t quite get it.

Yes. Everything died. Every individual between the current extant cohort and the last common ancestor died. It’s what organisms do. Is this so hard to understand? But that does not imply that every possible intermediate form existed and died. They may also be confusing individuals with populations, but I find it very difficult to read the minds of creationists.

Here’s a tree branch.


There is a twig at A (call it humans), and there is a twig at B (chimps), and there is an ancestral branch point 6 million years ago. A population of cells at the “ancestor” point divided multiple times and split into two extending meristems that produced the branch leading to A and the branch leading to B. I think our creationist is assuming that there had to have been a solid sheet of wood filling the space between A and B, that the space of all possible positions for twigs had to be filled, and that it was somehow pruned back selectively to create just the two twigs.

But that would make no sense, wouldn’t fit our understanding of how branches form, and would be really stupid. They can’t possibly think that, can they?

But skeptics don’t believe in deja vu!

Maybe I’m just stuck in a time-loop, because the old familiar arguments keep popping up. Back in 2010, I had to explain to skeptics that Skepticon was a conference of skeptics — they just included religion among the valid topics for criticism. And today, what do I see but that Lauren Lane has to explain that Skepticon is skeptical.

Okay, so we give our skeptical side-eye to a lot of things that other skeptics groups consider to be outside the traditions of the skeptical movement. But skepticism is an approach to finding the truth by valuing evidence and reason, recognizing human biases and limitations, and working to overcome them. Skepticon promotes skeptical thought on a wide range of topics, from bigfoot to bigotry, psychics to society, reflexology to religion. So many ideas can benefit from a skeptical look.

It’s annoying to have to repeatedly explain these basics, but unfortunately one of the traditional activities of many old-school skeptical organizations has been to build fences around certain topics and tell us that we’re not allowed to be skeptical of some sacred cows.

I’m glad Skepticon isn’t afraid to brush past the gate-keepers.

P.S. I’m supposed to remind you to donate to Skepticon.

Good news, my fellow aristocrats of the Higher Education Cartel!

If you’re like me, you’re neck-deep in preparation for the new academic year right now. I’m meeting with advisees this morning, and have lab stuff to order and more tweaking of my syllabus to do.

Relax! Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin has an answer for us all. Pop a VHS cassette into the tape player and let that do the teaching for you!

We’ve got the internet — you have so much information available. Why do you have to keep paying different lecturers to teach the same course? You get one solid lecturer and put it up online and have everybody available to that knowledge for a whole lot cheaper? But that doesn’t play very well to tenured professors in the higher education cartel. So again, we need destructive technology for our higher education system, he said.
Johnson added, One of the examples I always used — if you want to teach the Civil War across the country, are you better off having, I don’t know, tens of thousands of history teachers that kind of know the subject, or would you be better off popping in 14 hours of Ken Burns’s Civil War tape and then have those teachers proctor based on that excellent video production already done? You keep duplicating that over all these different subject areas.

Ooooh, I’m in a higher education cartel? I had no idea. I thought it was more of a syndicate, or mob, or gang. It does not surprise me, though, that a Republican wants to destroy our mafia.

His idea of just acting as a proctor for a series of videos intrigues me, though — it sure would be a lot less work than reading all those papers and textbooks, distilling them down into presentations, and trying to draw out students into interacting with you and the material. I use short video segments to illustrate concepts already — but nowadays we go to online digital sources rather than these mysterious “tapes” — but hey, if I could just show videos for the class hour for a couple of weeks, that would definitely take a load off my back.

Although…I did once have a class that was taught that way, back in junior high school. It was our health course, “taught” by the PE coach, who basically knew nothing about the subject, but could run a film strip or an 8mm projector (Mr Johnson is truly with it — he could have recommended even older technologies) just fine. The thing is, it was a terrible, crappy course, and I learned nothing, other than that the instructor was an ignorant dumbass.

But maybe the technology is greatly improved. Burns’ series is well done, and students would learn some things from it.

Is there also a video series that teaches how to compare and assess multiple sources? I wouldn’t want students to think there is only one true story about the Civil War.

Is there a video for every possible question my students might ask? You never know what might pop into their heads, and the instructor has to be prepared to answer…or at least, explain how to find the answer.

When a student shows up at my office with a question about some complicated figure in a paper, is there a tape I can show them? I hate just sitting there, looking blank, and being able to shuffle through a gigantic stack of tapes at least gives me something useful to do.

I mentioned I’m have an advising meeting soon. Is there tape for that?

Currently, Ron Johnson is stuck in a difficult re-election campaign. Does he have a tape that explains how to win? Maybe he should sit down and watch it a couple of times.

While he’s doing that, every citizen in his electorate who knows anything about teaching — which definitely does not include Ron Johnson — will be voting for Russ Feingold, so at least he’s made that decision even easier.

I want to see a documentary about the Middle Ages in which all the recreators are swans now

Indignant conservatives who insist on “accuracy” in television shows make me laugh. Apparently, the BBC has some show about Margaret of Anjou in which the title character is played by Sophie Okonedo, who is of Nigerian ancestry. Some people can’t get past the skin color to see the role the actor is playing.


You know, the BBC doesn’t have a time machine in order to pull in the original Margaret of Anjou to play the role, so anyone they can bring in is going to look different than the real person. If they had a white person playing her, would they pick over the shape of her nose, if it wasn’t identical? Nigel Farage is white, would he have been a better choice as an actor?

But here’s something even funnier: a medieval historian who wrote a thesis on the manuscript Mr Wood cited as the authority on how Margaret ought to look weighed in.

Hi @CllrChrisWood that’s a lovely medieval image you have there. It’s from a manuscript that claims M of Anjou was descended from a swan

I must insist on true historical accuracy in all future documentaries, and apparently a significant fraction of British royalty must be portrayed as part bird.

Also as part French. Margaret of Anjou was born in France (well, Lorraine), and was of the French house of Anjou-Valois. A UKIPper defending the accuracy of a television show is going to have to insist on hiring French actors, I guess.

What if the atheist movement needs to die?

I’m sure glad David Smalley and I are friends and fellow atheists, because he begins a post titled What’s Killing the Atheist Movement? by saying this:

Remember when our friends could be wrong?

I do. Lots of my friends were idiots growing up. Hell, I was that idiot a few times.

But we stuck by each other, we worked through our issues, and we grew together.

So he won’t mind at all when I say that the post is a string of obnoxious atheist cliches and that he’s dead wrong about everything. It’s all the same bullshit I heard over 5 years ago when assholes started harassing my friends, and random women and minorities, off the internet.

We’re supposed to keep our disagreements private.

Also, I have standards in my friends. I don’t mindlessly stick with them; there are things they can do that I would absolutely kick them to the curb over, that are not negotiable. This is as it should be. “Friends” is not a contract that requires me to abide the abominable.

Yes, we had fights. And that’s ok. But our fights were private, and were about the issues. Not public horrific Trump-like attacks because of a simple disagreement in method or opinion.

Not once, in my entire history of blogging (over a decade), or my entire history of internet interactions (going on 25 years or more) has anyone politely called me up to have a “private fight” about something. I can’t even imagine it happening. I’d probably look at my phone in disbelief and say, “Dude. Take it to the internet. We can take our time and write stuff with substance and put it on record, instead of babbling on ephemeral media.” But I’ve heard this suggested many times, publicly, on the internet, and usually by someone who fears they’ll get publicly eviscerated. And then it’s usually a prelude to the poor person who wants to make it “private” using the opportunity to publicly denounce the other person for being a poor sport, rude, and unwilling to settle a disagreement with a friendly game of tiddlywinks.

Then there’s the “our disagreement is so petty that you should back down for the good of the movement” approach.

When our “friends” on Facebook or Twitter make a comment that we find offensive or absurd, we are so quick to disown them and “take a public stand” immediately, that we’re fracturing our movement into a thousand tiny micro groups that will be useless against the larger powers we’re collectively fighting.

Who are these larger powers that justify silencing dissent?

There are two parts to this issue that I find difficult to handle.

One is that I hear this from the same atheists who like to tell me that the only thing atheists can unite and agree on is the trivial issue of whether god exists (He doesn’t. There, done with that!) So there is a substantial segment of the atheist community (which doesn’t exist, according to them) that wants you to shut up about anything other than the existence of a god…and the operative phrase is shut up. The nonexistence of deities is not a very useful or practical cause; I’m far more interested in the implications of an absence of a divine authority, specifically in how science and reason explain the nature of the universe, and how any moral action should be based in humanism. So right away we have a problem: merely fighting against a vague and unspecified faith isn’t useful, and many atheists refuse to discuss in any concrete way what they want to fight for.

The second part is that the things I think important are disparaged by these same atheists: feminism, equality, social justice. So when I encounter some dudebro atheist jerkoff spitting on feminism, you’re not going to persuade me to go easy on him in the name of unity over our shared agreement that god doesn’t exist. When someone declares their indifference to the murder of a transgender woman, I’m not going to resist the temptation to unfriend them on facebook because, gosh, we both laughed at an irreligious George Carlin routine.

I’m also not going to sit back and let someone else tell me what’s important to me, and trivialize the causes I consider essential, asking me to silence myself about misogyny or racism because darn it, this year we’re going to get “In God We Trust” off of our pennies.

I’m not saying to excuse all ridiculous behavior.

This is another example of trivializing: now the problems many of us see in the movement are merely “ridiculous behavior”. We are fractured because there are deep disagreements about how to address serious social issues. Worse, because some people won’t even accept the dehumanization of fellow human beings as something more substantial than ridiculousness.

But where’s our Humanism? Where are the private and personal phone calls to work things out?

What is it with the phone calls? I give my phone number to friends and family. The last thing I want is The Amazing Atheist to give me a ring so we can work out our differences, as if a phone call would fix anything. Where does this fantasy that differences in philosophy are best resolved over the devil’s instrument, the telephone, with a strategy, talking, that can be as godawfully bad as Twitter for engaging in depth.

The “phone call” ploy is just another silencing tactic. Don’t express your disagreement and your ideas where other people can see them, please put it on a private channel where I can ignore them.

When someone is being absurd on Facebook, and we dog pile that person, make fun of that person, and create little secret groups to demean that person, that sounds more like church than it does a bunch of skeptics.

“Absurd”. Someone can say something dehumanizing, violent, racist, anti-woman, and we’ll just tuck that into the category of the “absurd”, and then dismiss the protestations against it. We’re not talking about deep rifts in atheism over whether we favor Skittles over M&Ms. Pay attention to what the people leaving atheism are complaining about. They’re serious. This isn’t over jokes or trivia.

Also, what sounds to me more like church is demanding quiet deferral to authority and a conspiracy of silence, in the name of the sacred cause, to protect the powerful and popular.

This is all just the tired old “civility” debate rehashed again. Not interested. I’m also not interested in discussing nothing but the existence of gods with atheists, where that issue is already settled, especially when it’s used as an excuse to avoid grappling with substantial human concerns. Fuck civility when we’ve got atheists who think the humanity of women or transgender individuals or non-white males in general is something we need to debate.

Oh, excuse me, not debate — to phone people up and have a private conversation about.

1-800-FLOWERS, for when you absolutely don’t care about getting a terrific experience


I have a shocking confession to make. I’m a nerd. A colossal, boring, asocial nerd, and a homely one at that, and I always have been. You might also be surprised to learn that I totally lack all confidence in myself and my appearance, and it only takes a little bit to impress me.

So I was dating this girl once upon a time…a girl who totally outclassed me in all regards. This was the standard scenario: I was the typical dirt-poor nebbish with the glasses and the weird focus on science, and I had acquired this fascination with this one very attractive, smart, well-dressed, significantly-more-popular-than-me girl, and I had one day decided that I would be bold and ask her out on a date. I’d do it that night.

[Read more…]

The 2016 Hugos


Man, they’re just torturing puppies. The Sad/Rabid/Pathetic Puppy slate got repudiated again by giving awards to people who earned them.

The winner of the best novel was The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin. This book is not light reading: three different narrators gradually coming together in a complex fantasy story set on a world with frequent apocalyptic geological catastrophes, held together by by wizards who focus on calming seismic events…or in some cases, triggering them. This is a story with a lot of hard detail and psychological nuance. It deserves this award.

The best novella (and for me, it literally was — this was my favorite SF story of the past year) went to Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. This was classic hard SF — humans live in space, engage in interstellar travel, and meet alien species, some of whom want to kill us. And at the same time, it doesn’t erase 90% of the human species by turning starfarers into an American monoculture of endless variations on Captain Kirk.

Both of those are written by black women. That has got to sting the Puppies, who hate “SJWs”, which is actually a code phrase for “doesn’t think white men necessarily deserve all the things”. There’s also no way to call these token awards — these were stunningly good books.

Most of the rest of the nominees I hadn’t read — especially that very popular “No Award” that seemed to beat out offerings from Castalia House. Of the ones I did read or saw, I did not much care for The Martian by Andy Weir, which won best long form dramatic presentation, although I will admit that the book was a fast-paced page turner, and the movie was slick. I just objected to an engineering wish-fulfillment fantasy presented as science. That one is going to be long forgotten while people will still be watching Mad Max: Fury Road. I noticed that one episode of Jessica Jones also won best short form dramatic presentation.

The best thing, though, is that when awards are given on merit, rather than racial and gender bias, you start to seen great new voices being appreciated.

NK Jemisin’s acceptance speech is worth reading. For completely different reasons, Vox Day’s weird rationalizations are also worth reading, to see the depth to which the puppies will sink. He calls Jemisin a half-savage, claims her win was primarily a vote against the Puppies, claims credit as kingmaker for The Martian’s win (it was a very popular movie and book, you know, without Theodore Beale’s “help”), and declared that coming in second place was a great victory. He also comes right out and says that the goal was to burn the Hugos.