At least our cons are better than that!

I think. I don’t know how much leg-chewing goes on when I’m not looking, anyway. I ran across this account of DefCon, the hacker conference, and was impressed at how close it sounds to some of our atheist/skeptic conferences…only worse.

For anyone who wasn’t able to immediately find a female Defcon attendee, I will let you in on a not very well kept secret. Defcon is hell for women. Defcon is also many wonderful things. It is a fantastic environment to learn, network, and connect with friends old and new. But I’m not here to talk about that. There are plenty of other people who have been going to Defcon for longer than I, and who have gained more from it, who are infinitely more equipped to speak about it’s strengths as a conference. All I can speak to is my somewhat jarring experience last year, the first time I attended.

Let it be known that I went to Defcon with a reasonable amount of armor on already. I was reasonably aware of the frat party environment I was stepping into. I have many friends who are involved with helping make Defcon roll smoothly each year, from speakers to goons. And still, nothing could have prepared me for the onslaught of bad behavior I experienced.

Like the man who drunkenly tried to lick my shoulder tattoo. Like the man who grabbed my hips while I was waiting for a drink at the EFF party. Like the man who tried to get me to show him my tits so he could punch a hole in a card that, when filled, would net him a favor from one of the official security staff (I do not have words for how slimy it is that the official security staff were in charge of what was essentially a competition to get women to show their boobs). Or lastly, the man who, without prompting, interrupted my conversation and asked me if I’d like to come back to his room for a “private pillowfight party.” “You know,” he said. “Just a bunch of girls having a pillowfight…. fun!” When I asked him how many men would be standing around in a circle recording this event, he quickly assured me that “no one would be taking video! I swear!” I’m pretty sure this is the point where my lovely partner Morgan asked him if he thought propositions like his had anything to do with contributing to women not feeling welcome at Defcon. This was a very difficult concept for this poor soul to wrap his head around.

The author has a cool solution. She’s making up red and yellow ‘creeper cards’ — when someone makes an inappropriate advance, you reward them with a little card that explains what a slimeball move they just made.

That kind of wording scares me

There has been a new outbreak of Ebola in Uganda. This kind of stuff worries me, not in acute “oh-we’re-all-going-to-die-now” sort of way, but in a long term perspective. We’re all sitting here fat and happy and swarming, and what’s going to wipe out this species some day is a combination of resource depletion and new diseases — famine and plague, to name two of the horsemen.

But I thought this bit was bizarre.

Ondoa described the Ebola-Sudan strain detected as "mild" compared to other types of Ebola, noting that victims’ lives can be saved with intervention.

20 people infected.

14 dead.


I’d read that

Heina Dadabhoy has kickstarter project to write A Skeptic’s Guide to Islam. It sounds like someone is making a smart decision to write to their strengths:

There are plenty of positive books about Islam by Muslims. There are many positive books on Islam by non-Muslims. There are more negative books on Islam by non-Muslims than you’d think there were. There are several books on Islam by ex-Muslims that are personal stories, written with the intention of debunking/exposing, and/or approached from a very academic perspective. There are a handful of critical books on Islam by progressive Muslims.

I intend to bridge the last two categories with my own point of view: I was an American Muslim born-and-raised believer until I left the religion for philosophical, rather than political, reasons. The book is not intended to particularly attack Islam, per se, but neither is it going to sugar-coat or ignore important issues related to Islam.

She’s real close to her major goal of $5,000; getting a bit more than that would allow her to do some extra stuff with it.

Why I am an atheist – Fay

I’m an atheist because I could no longer continue to do mental gymnastics.  I kept arguing with my own mind, trying to convince myself that the faith that my parents followed, was the only true way.  Eventually I had to look myself in the mirror and admit I saw things differently.  No, I was not destined to be less than all men given all the men I successfully competed against in school, in my profession etc.  No I could not believe that I was miraculously born into just the right family to have just the right faith to save me from hellfire. No I could not accept that ancient books that were supposedly written by a god, who created the universe state things about the universe that are demonstrably false.  No I could not accept that women were to blame for male lust and sexual violence and so needed to be covered up.  No I could not accept that my future had already been written but I would be punished or rewarded for how my life turned out.  I could go on and on.  The mental energy required to keep supporting religion was just too much for my brain.  I had to let religion go and set my brain free.  Life is more beautiful ever since.



A modest proposal

A typical American school day finds some six million high school students and two million college freshmen struggling with reading and writing. We ought to face reality: most of these students might graduate, but they’ll never crack another book in their life, the bulk of their written communications skills require nothing more than their thumbs and a tiny screen and fleeting comments that require neither punctuation nor even lower case — Y U NO WRT ME? — let alone grammar. If they make it to their version of advanced studies — business school — the epitome of literacy will be the 5 line, six words per line bullet point slide in PowerPoint, and most of the lines will consist of stock phrases.

Meanwhile, the schools invest time, money, and teachers in futile efforts to make students with the attention spans of mosquitos try to read short stories, and even novels…and then, in the inevitable standardized test, they are challenged to extract meaning from at best three paragraph snippets. They then regurgitate trivialities in the stock 5-paragraph essay: I’m going to tell you 3 things, here’s thing 1, here’s thing 2, here’s thing 3, I just told you 3 things.

Why are we wasting time on these antique skills? You know they hate reading, they don’t want to read, and once we stop nagging them about reading, they’ll avoid it altogether for the rest of their lives. Why read a book when you can just wait for the Hollywood version, which will also include breasts and explosions? These are also skills most people won’t need in whatever jobs they end up doing.

So here’s my proposal: let’s stop.

We’ll save money. School can be abbreviated, getting the kids into the workforce faster. We won’t need to train teachers; any babysitter will do. And most importantly, graduation rates will soar right through the roof. And as we all know, graduation rates are the only numbers we need to determine whether our students is learning, and our schools is teaching.

I’m certain this idea will have enthusiastic Republican support, and that the Democrats will follow along.

I know, you don’t believe I’m serious. Then how can we believe Andrew Hacker? He seriously proposes in the NY Times (which will apparently publish anything nowadays) that we should stop teaching algebra. Algebra! The one basic, elementary mathematical principle we should expect our kids to learn, and he considers it superfluous.

His reasoning is bizarre.

The toll mathematics takes begins early. To our nation’s shame, one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school. In South Carolina, 34 percent fell away in 2008-9, according to national data released last year; for Nevada, it was 45 percent. Most of the educators I’ve talked with cite algebra as the major academic reason.

Shirley Bagwell, a longtime Tennessee teacher, warns that “to expect all students to master algebra will cause more students to drop out.” For those who stay in school, there are often “exit exams,” almost all of which contain an algebra component. In Oklahoma, 33 percent failed to pass last year, as did 35 percent in West Virginia.

Um, yeah? Math is non-trivial, and it’s conceptually difficult for some students to master. But that is true of every single thing worth learning. The purpose of an education is not to get a diploma, but to learn challenging and useful knowledge, and his approach is to redefine education to be something anyone can get with little effort — in essence, he’s making an education achievable by more people by stripping out the difficult learning part. But that’s not an education any more!

And to remove algebra from the curriculum…I can scarcely believe it. We live in a technological society. Not learning algebra in the public school system means those kids will not be prepared, will not be qualified, to do anything in science and engineering. I’m serious: if you don’t know algebra, you can’t do basic quantitative chemistry, and if you can’t do that, you can’t do biology. At all. Not the molecular/biochemical/bench side, not the ecological/evolutionary/field side. You can’t do physics, that’s for sure. Forget math and statistics. If you’re not capable of grasping statistics, forget psychology, too.

You can probably still be a competent English major, I admit. But wouldn’t we be better off if all the English majors had an inkling of the foundations of science, as well as all the science majors having a touch of the humanities and social sciences? Shouldn’t we expect that even those people who choose not to pursue a college degree ought to have a bare minimum of competence in math and history and language and science and art, if we’re actually going to deem them educated?

Setting algebra as a minimum is actually setting a low bar. If a third of the students are failing that minimal expectation, then the solution isn’t to simply disappear the requirement, but to teach it better. Or admit that students who can’t read, who can’t write, who can’t do a simple algebraic manipulation, are not educated. Period. No excuses.

And if you’re going to do that, you might as well write off any delusions about having a well-informed citizenry.

Is there a way to impeach Scalia?

That man is a dangerous lunatic. He’s got a theological dedication to insisting that the US must be run exclusively by the 18th century principles of the Founding Fathers — even when he’s willing to consider limitations on the ownership of weapons, he gives it an unbelievable twist.

The justice explained that under his principle of originalism, some limitations on weapons were possible. Fox example, laws to restrict people from carrying a "head axe" would be constitutional because it was a misdemeanor when the Constitution was adopted in the late 1700s.

What the hell is a “head axe”, I wondered. So I looked it up. Here’s a picture:

OK, that looks nasty. I’m glad the Supreme Court will think that casually carrying around a deadly looking thing like that is not reasonable behavior.

But then look where his reasoning takes him:

"What about these technological limitations?" Wallace wondered. "Obviously, we’re not now talking about a handgun or a musket, we’re talking about a weapon that can fire a hundred shots in a minute."

"We’ll see," Scalia replied. "Obviously the amendment does not apply to arms that can not be hand-carried. It’s to ‘keep and bear’ so it doesn’t apply to cannons."

Oh, good. We can restrict people’s ownership of cannons…because he interprets the Constitution with a Ken Ham-like literal-mindedness that says the only weapons that count are carried.

"But I suppose there are handheld rocket launchers that can bring down airplanes that will have to — it’s will have to be decided," he added.

So no head axes, and no artillery…but the right to keep and bear arms can be extended to fucking rocket launchers.

I give up. Our legal leadership consists of brain-damaged, narrowly literal-minded amoral morons who worship an 18th century scrap of paper.


Since I’m already receiving angry accusations that I ‘pressured’ Cristina Rad into becoming a radfem or something similarly silly, I will just point out the fact that I have no power over her other than as one host of several on a blogging network, that the financial incentives in this business are not compelling enough to get her to compromise her principles, and that Cristina Rad explains her intellectual journey in some detail without mentioning my name, the handcuffs, or the whip.

It’s a good description of a woman waking up from awareness of “the way things are” to “the way things ought to be.” It’s trivializing her experiences to say I had anything to do with it.

Another conversion story

Richard Muller used to be a doubter — he didn’t think global warming was a concern, and he didn’t think people were responsible for it. Now he has changed his mind, and he explains why.

Call me a converted skeptic. Three years ago I identified problems in previous climate studies that, in my mind, threw doubt on the very existence of global warming. Last year, following an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct. I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause.

My total turnaround, in such a short time, is the result of careful and objective analysis by the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project, which I founded with my daughter Elizabeth. Our results show that the average temperature of the earth’s land has risen by two and a half degrees Fahrenheit over the past 250 years, including an increase of one and a half degrees over the most recent 50 years. Moreover, it appears likely that essentially all of this increase results from the human emission of greenhouse gases.

You mean, sometimes evidence works? Wow.

Lawyers and atheists

We both have something in common — we both tend to get vilified regularly, although I have to admit, lawyers have it worse — there isn’t a whole category of atheist jokes where the punch line is always something about how they have to die horribly. So I feel it’s only fair to acknowledge that we do need lawyers, and they deserve some credit.

So today I got letter from an ebullient lawyer and regular reader who wanted to tell a tale of triumphant justice. And I thought you might enjoy it, too. The names and details have been changed and obscured to protect the innocent.

Also, it’s about a dreadful rape case, and it does discuss some of the horrific consequences, so some of you may want to avoid it. Let me reassure you, though…it has a happy ending!

[Read more…]