Movie Friday: Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Talented Tenth

One of things I remember learning from my father at a young age is that I was going to have to work harder to achieve what others had because of my race. That my performance would be judged alongside a whole bunch of racist baggage over which I had no control. Now that I am in the professional realm, it’s hard for me to say whether or not he was right in my own case (if my race has been a serious impediment to my achievement, I’ve never noticed), but I do know that it is generally true.

W.E.B. Dubois, one of America’s first prominent black intellectuals, espoused a concept called the “talented tenth”. His conjecture was that in a population of black folks, there were an ‘elite’ group at the top that could succeed despite racist handicapping. Dubois suggested that this elite group had a duty to ensure that, as they succeeded, they brought the other 90% along with them. That the privileges and talents afforded those at the top should be used in the advancement of the entire race, rather than put to use to benefit the oppressor. Egotist that I am, I always imagined myself being among that elite group, and (in my own way) accepting the responsibility.

Of course the problem for me is that I am largely an outsider to black communities, since I didn’t grow up among other black kids or even family members (they all lived scattered far afield – I am closer to my Italian step-cousins than I am my blood relatives). I was therefore left with a conundrum: did I try to force integrate into a black community in order to arrogantly “elevate” them to my status? If not, how could I live up to a duty that I felt was fair and important?

Neil deGrasse Tyson tells of a similar problem: [Read more…]

Throwing the book at it

So I was feeling punchy this morning and decided to mock two people I follow on Twitter: FTB’s own Natalie Reed, and April Gardner aka Slignot on the topic of electronic books vs. physical books:

A picture of a Twitter exchange between myself and Slignot

My point was simply to point out that there has been pushback against every new technology by those who cry that humanity will forever lose the specific charms of whatever is being made obsolete. There is nothing inherently wrong with digital distribution of knowledge (either as books or whatever else), and the world will mourn the loss of the book in the same way it mourned the loss of the rotary phone, the telegraph, and the horse-drawn carriage. Yes, there will always be techno-hipsters who insist that vinyl records are the best way of appreciating music, and I’m sure a niche market for books will persist after the rest of the world moves online, but I’ve always found such allegiance to obsolete technologies a very weird thing to insist on. Then again, I find listening to house music, wearing vests, and drinking bubble tea weird to the same extent, so there’s that. [Read more…]

Holy shit

Most of you may not be aware that in my wild younger days I was deeply involved in the Catholic church. It started innocently enough, playing violin in the choir on Sundays, an occasional youth group meeting. However, as the years passed, my problems got worse and worse. I began flirting with the idea of becoming a priest, ostensibly with the noble goal of reforming the organization from the inside (ah, the naiveté of youth). At my lowest point I found myself teaching a Sunday school class. It was an ugly period in my life that I’m not proud of.

At some point during my whole ‘experimenting with Jesus’ phase, I got myself appointed to read from the lectern during Sunday masses. Owing to my relatively young age and the fact that I had passable public speaking skills, I was asked to be one of the readers during the Good Friday Passion service. Unlike usual masses where the priest reads the gospel passages in their entirety, the Passion service has three readers: the priest who reads the words spoken by Jesus, another reader who reads the words spoken by anyone else, and a third who acts as narrator.

As I was standing at the lectern, reading the narrative bits as clearly and distinctly as I could, I remember being overcome with a deep feeling of dissatisfaction at the story. Where I had previously felt awed and humbled in the face of the story of ultimate selfless sacrifice, I instead was left with a familiar and unpleasant taste in my mouth. The more of the words I spoke, the stronger that taste became. No matter how I tried to find the beauty and majesty I had previously found abundant in the tale of a god humbling itself before its own creation in order to build a path to salvation, for some reason I just couldn’t conjure that feeling of sorrow and gratitude. [Read more…]

When the rug is pulled

The following paragraph is going to come across as excessively self-congratulatory. I suggest you buckle in for a brag-fest of epic proportions.

I am well above-average in the success department. By age 25 I had two science degrees from universities that are among the Canadian “Ivy League”, was running a scientific journal, was full-time employed with lots of prospects ahead. Since then I’ve been accepted for a third degree at a third Ivy-league school, fronted a successful indie rock band, and was plucked out of relative obscurity to write for one of the largest independent secular thought platforms on the internet. I’m a classically-trained violist whose resume includes two seasons as a semi-professional player. I am widely-read and conversantly eloquent enough to be comfortable hobnobbing with the upper crust when the situation demands.

I’ve got it like that.

So here’s me, accomplished and talented, sitting with my also accomplished and talented friends at a local bar enjoying ourselves. Not obtrusively, but in the normal way for people our age. Up sidles a young gentleman, drunk and friendly, who began chatting and joking with us. After 5 or so minutes, he leans in and asks me if I can sell him some cocaine. Baffled, I told him that if he was pulling some kind of gag, I didn’t get it.

His response: “C’mon man, you know. Big black guy… you’ve got to be selling drugs right?” [Read more…]

I quit

For as long as I can remember, I have been deeply fascinated by science. One of my earliest memories involves a cross-country trip (nothing can prepare you for how immense Canada is – you have to drive across it) with a big stack of science books – of course the highlight of the whole trip was the Royal Tyrell Museum of Paleontology  in Drumheller, Alberta. As a matter of fact, the second-most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make was in high school, when I had to choose whether to pursue a career in science or music. The most difficult, incidentally, was deciding whether my best friend would live or die*.

Science has always been a huge part of my life, which is why I am devastated to say that I am going to have to quit:

In a recent experiment, Paul Vasey of Canada’s University of Lethbridge and Barnaby Dixson of New Zealand’s Victoria University of Wellington found that while beards may be stylish, and are probably a mark of alpha males, they aren’t necessarily a key tool for attracting the ladies. “Women … do not rate bearded faces as more attractive than clean-shaven faces,” the researchers wrote in the journal Behavioral Ecology.


Both men and women said that with beards, the men looked older and more aggressive than they did with their beards shaved. The viewers also ascribed higher social status to the men when they were bearded than when they were baby-faced. Women said that the clean-shaven faces were more attractive than the whiskery ones.

There comes a time in everyone’s life where they are forced to choose between their deeply-held personal beliefs, and the scientific consensus. Many people find it difficult to accept scientific evidence for the age of the earth. Others find the vastness of the cosmos too daunting and shut out the evidence for the Big Bang. Still others cannot bring themselves to accept the fact that all life is descended from a common ancestor, in defiance of the Genesis account. It seems that I am forced to make the same decision.

Look at this face: [Read more…]

‘Couv team ASSEMBLE!

Tonight, we are once again assembling at the Billy Bishop for some skeptical imbibing and conversation. I somehow managed to miss last month’s meetup, but I am absolutely not going to miss this one. Plus I am meeting up with Natalie beforehand for some delicious Vera’s burgers. If you can’t make it tonight, make sure to check out the other events hosted by Vancouver Skeptics in the Pub – one downtown Vancouver and another in Richmond. Check out the schedule for more info, and if you can make it to Kitilsano tonight, come by and say hi!

If drinking isn’t your game, there are a lot of other fun skepty activities happening in the city, many of which are available on the Vancouver Skeptics page. Vancouver has a very active skeptical community, including associations with the UBC and SFU skeptic/atheist groups, and a number of other affiliated groups like CFI Vancouver. If you live in the Vancouver area and want to know what your fellow freethinkers are up to, check out the page!

See you tonight! Burgersburgersburgersburgers.

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In which I blur the line unacceptably

I try to keep a more-or-less sharp division between what I do for a living and what I do on this blog. I am not ashamed of my job (in fact I’m quite proud of it), nor am I aware of any official department policy prohibiting me from sharing my opinions online. I enforce this ‘rule’ about keeping my worlds separate simply because at some point there may be a conflict, or I might piss off the wrong political nutjob, and there will be an exploration of my personal life and my professional life. I’d prefer to give that kind of witch hunt as little ammunition as possible. In fact, if you read the FAQ, I specifically disavow any connection between Crommunist the snarky-yet-perennially-delightful blogger, and Ian Cromwell the person who exists and has a job in meatspace.

That being said, I received some very good news today that I am going to share here because it pleases me to do so:

Dear Ian Cromwell,


On behalf of Dr. Susan Porter, Dean pro tem, I am pleased to notify you that you have been offered acceptance by the UBC Faculty of Graduate Studies into the PHD program In Population and Public Health for the 2012-2013 Academic Year with the start date of September 2012, pending the dispatch of our official paper admission letter.

So this fall, I will be joining my illustrious colleague Jen McCreight in the happy throes of grad-studentdom (although, obviously, not at the same school). Unlike Jen, however, my blogging interests and my academic interests have very little overlap, so you will be sadly deprived of the blow-by-blow of the minutiae of life as a student (to the same extent that you are deprived of the facts of my professional life). Indeed, should I manage it correctly, my life will not be changing that dramatically. This may indeed be the last time you hear about my degree plans until I have the thing in my hands.

Anyway, self over-disclosure time is over. Here is a gif that approximates my current mood:

A level of celebration that can only be described as 'excessive'

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve disliked cats. I probably got the attitude from my father, who was allergic and disliked animal hair on his black slacks (he wore black slacks a lot – my dad’s got style). It’s not usually a big deal – I don’t hate cats or anything, I’m just not a fan. If you can split the world into ‘cat people’ and ‘dog people’ I am totally a ‘dog person’. I love dogs. They’re awesome. Cats are some special combination of insane, needy and dickish; dogs just want to play. Plus you can train dogs to do stuff – cats train you.

I don’t like cats, is what I’m saying.

But you know who does like cats? The fucking internet. I can’t go three links on Reddit without someone posting a picture of their goddamn cat doing something completely uninteresting. “Look, he’s sitting in a shoebox!” Hi-fucking-larious, bro! A million upvotes for you! “Look, she’s chasing a laser pointer because of an instinctual attraction to movement and a lack of comprehension of human technology!” Wowee! I’ve never seen that a million times before! That certainly didn’t stop being amusing to me by the time I turned 8!

I don’t like people who go nuts about cats, is what I’m saying.

But now I think I have a bit more sympathy for them: [Read more…]

Ask Crommunist Anything

Many of you may not know that I am fairly active on Reddit. I discovered r/atheism just over a year ago and began branching out to other subreddits shortly after that. For all the (mostly justified) criticism that r/atheism garners, it is a wonderful place for atheists who can’t be part of a physical community. There is a lesser-known subreddit called r/blackatheism that aggregates content relevant to black atheists. One of the moderators suggested that I post an AMA (Ask Me Anything – an open-ended opportunity to ask questions and have them answered).

So I did.

I don’t know if any of you have questions that you’d like to ask me about being a black atheist, about blogging, about personal stuff in my life, or whatever. If you do, head on over to the linked AMA and submit your question.

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