Friday, October 03, 2014

Harry Potter and the three tropes, a.k.a. what else is wrong with Harry Potter, part 2

I wasn't going to post this to my blog because I don't want to be buried in comments telling me I'm a mean, bitter Harry Potter hater, but... I figure there's maybe seven people reading this blog, so what the hell. If at any point you feel compelled to write me such a comment, please at least read the disclaimer on part 1 before doing so.

I've followed the Harry Potter series as a fan from around the time the second or third book came out, and now that it's been over for a bit, we re-watched the films this past spring, and I have unfortunately spent some time reflecting upon the whole thing.

My opinion of it has suffered an adjustment. It's not as bad as Twilight (where the fun is in making fun of it), but in retrospect, I feel like my enjoyment of Harry Potter was mostly a question of getting caught up in a wave that your friends are caught up in -- and it would have been so much more awesome if we'd all been caught up in something equally fun and imaginative, but better. I'm sure such works exist, it's just a question of which one randomly hits the critical mass to become a superstar phenomenon.

Anyway, with that preface, I will outline my analysis of work's most critical flaws so I can close this book and stop thinking about it.

The story of Harry Potter rests squarely upon three of the stupidest, laziest, most over-used tropes in modern popular literature.

1. The evil villain who is evil just for the love of evil.

Every story needs a conflict, and if you can't think of an interesting one, there's always this standard go-to option. This trope pisses me off not just because of the phoning-it-in aspect, but also because it happens in real life exactly never.

At this point, the attentive reader is probably going "but... Hitler!!" But even Hitler was more complicated than that. As Orson Scott Card impressively demonstrated, you can write a tale about a genocidal monster, and if you tell it from his perspective well, you can convince millions of fans not only to forgive him, but to love him.

This trope also encourages people to view their rivals as simply evil, and to view the struggle for your own interests as the fight for Good with a capital-G. This is exactly the wrong message in our modern interconnected society where we need to understand that other people have their own perspectives and legitimate interests and deserve to be treated fairly, even if they have some weird language and culture that we don't understand.

In Harry Potter's case, the Voldemort character is just so pointless, and his followers' motivation is completely absent. They have no reasonable expectation of getting anything good from him, yet they're constantly walking on eggshells because he just might kill or otherwise horribly punish any one of them on a whim at any time. Even the suggestion that the serve him because they fear him doesn't hold water because the people of their universe are clearly a lot safer from Voldemort simply by staying far away from him and doing nothing to attract his attention than they are while serving on his team.

2. Mom's sacrifice

This one would be less annoying if it were less common, and Harry Potter's use of it is less egregious than the use in Ice Age, for example. Still, I think it sends a very negative message that the most valuable thing a mom can do with her life is to sacrifice it completely for her child. The fact that mom can't find a way to save herself as well as saving her child is not only a negative statement about her skill and ingenuity, but also about the value of her life. Why should she bother to save herself when she has saved the person who's really important?

If you object by asking "What was Lily Potter supposed to do?" I say: nothing. Lily Potter is a fictional character. The author, on the other hand, is a real live person who didn't have to write the situation that way, but chose to.

3. The Prophecy

This trope bugs me because it is just. so. stupid.

So, there's this prophecy, and no one ever doubts for a minute that it's true. And of course it comes true because it's the prophecy!

Even in Harry Potter -- where magic is real -- this is ridiculous because it's clear that divination doesn't work in general, and the character who made the prophecy is well-known for being completely incompetent at predicting the future. Yet, for some unexplained reason, one of her predictions is the most accurate and important statement of what will happen in their universe.

This is one of the reasons why I love the Lego Movie (more on this to come). The Lego Movie turns this trope on its head in exactly the way it deserves to be turned on its head.

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But the three tropes aren't even this biggest structural flaw in the Harry Potter series. The biggest problem (as I said earlier) is the fish-eye-lens focus on Harry -- who is an interesting character, but not interesting enough to carry seven weighty tomes.

Part of the problem is that Rowling takes Harry from underdog to top of the world in the first book, and then is obligated to come up with increasingly ridiculous ways to try to reset him to underdog status at the beginning of each subsequent book. The fact that the resets are ineffective is demonstrated by the number of readers who end up despising Harry instead of sympathizing with him, and it is illustrated in the satire Potter Puppet Pals.

Additionally, it makes their universe weirdly small and contracted since nothing important can happen without Harry being a major player in it. But the worst part is the effect Harry's gravity has on the other characters and their lives and motivations, or lack thereof.

To become a Hogwarts professor, do you have to take a vow of celibacy or something? There are lots of teachers, and yet none of them are in any kind of long-term relationship. This is a striking contrast with most of the other adult characters, who are all married because their role with respect to Harry is not teacher but parent (of school comrades). It's like the author couldn't be bothered to write the teachers as whole people -- once they're out of Harry's view, they go on the shelf in the closet.

Then there's the terrible marriage of Harry's two side-kicks, Ron and Hermione.

These two are not just wrong for each other for the obvious reason, namely that Hermione deserves to be with someone exciting and doesn't deserve to spend the rest of her life nagging a boring husband, as she does in the epilogue of the last book. The pairing is even worse for Ron.

Ron's biggest problem throughout the series is that he is the tag-along. First he's in the shadow of his older brothers, and then he becomes "that guy who hangs around with Harry and Hermione while they're saving the world."  By marrying Hermione, he guarantees that he will never solve this problem as long as he lives.

A happy ending for Ron would have been to break up with Hermione shortly after their adventure, and to go to some other country where the people are less familiar with the details of what happened to Voldemort, where he wouldn't be immediately recognized. There, he would have his own adventure in which he is the protagonist, and someone would fall in love with him without even knowing any of the people whose shadow he had lived in. Then he could bring his bride back to England and hang out (occasionally) with his friends and family on his own terms.

But... Why should the author bother to take Ron's problems seriously and address them? Once he and Harry are both married off and no longer roomies, Ron's problems no longer directly affect Harry, so who cares?

And probably the most egregious example of makes-sense-from-the-author's-perspective-and-Harry's-but-not-from-the-character's is what happened to Snape.

First off, there's Dumbledore's brilliant plan to have Snape kill him. This plan makes perfect sense because the author wanted to end the second-to-last book with a big reveal that Snape had been a villain all along -- and then have the last book contain the even bigger reveal that Snape wasn't a villain after all! And the plan was pretty successful at its objective. From the logic of within the story universe though...?  Not so much.

Way back when Dumbledore was hatching this plan (before Harry and the audience knew about it), it was clear that this was a suicide mission for both Dumbledore and Snape. In the worst case scenario, Snape would be killed directly by Voldy and the Death Eaters (which is what happened), and in the best case scenario, Snape would survive as their universe returned to normal, at which point Snape would have the privilege of being "the guy who murdered Dumbledore." Somehow I don't think "No, really, he asked me to do it -- it's right here in my memories!" would hold up in court. So, in the best case scenario, Snape would have to go into hiding or end up in Azkaban.

And it's worse than that. Dumbledore knew that he was the master of the elder wand, and that killing him would make Snape the master of the elder wand, and that Voldemort would likely figure this out and consequently want to kill Snape (which is what happened). And if I recall correctly, Dumbledore didn't even bother to warn Snape of this additional danger before assigning him the task.

Now you're probably protesting that Snape agreed to this suicide mission for the sake of their world because he was brave and good, etc. And I'm willing to believe that, except... When you assign/accept a suicide mission, it should have an objective. Having Voldemort "trust you more" is not, in itself, an objective.

To what end? Was it to allow Snape better access to Voldemort to have the opportunity to kill him? No, Harry had to do that. To have the opportunity to destroy one of the last few horcruxes? Apparently not. The only critical task that Dumbledore assigned Snape (aside from killing him) was to tell Harry (at the critical moment) that Harry needs to let Voldemort kill him because that is the one thing that would kill Voldemort.

Now, which situation would make Snape's task easier? Still being at Hogwarts acting as a double-agent where he has unlimited access to people who are in communication with Harry? Or hanging around in Voldemort's inner circle while Harry is convinced that he's a villain who is actually on Voldemort's team?

Then there's the little matter of Snape's death. Snape's death made perfect sense because his work with respect to Harry was done, and if he were to survive and have to go to trial and/or into hiding, that would have been a complicated distraction from what is happening to Harry. Plus it might make readers notice how half-baked Dumbledore's plan was. So much simpler for the author just to kill him when she's done with him. Problem solved!

As "How it Should Have Ended" brilliantly explained, from the logic of within the story universe, it makes no sense for Snape to have been killed at that point. He knew what kind of danger he was in while hanging out with Voldy and the Death Eaters, and he had amply demonstrated in the earlier books that he was up to the challenge.

From the drama of the scene, it seemed like once Harry was about to find out about Snape's broken heart, Snape suddenly remembered that he'd lost the will to live, after all these years. And the fact that Snape would have been pining for Lily Evans Potter for all these years also makes perfect sense -- from Harry's perspective.

From Harry's perspective, of course his parents were the most wonderful people ever! They're the loving parents he wished he could have known if only they hadn't nobly sacrificed themselves for him! They don't need any further positive qualities to make the audience sympathize with them, duh. Obviously if someone had had any kind of relationship with Harry's angelic mother, that would be the high point of that person's life (as indicated by Snape's patronus charm).

In reality, a childhood friendship that ends in humiliating unrequited love (as the love-object immediately throws you over for a bully who torments you as soon as the lot of you hit puberty) is not something that would be a fond and happy memory. As someone who grew up unpopular (and who has plenty of friends who were in the same boat), I can tell you that the happy moment isn't that magic moment when the popular kids were nice to you. The happy moment is the moment when you grow up and realize that the popular kids don't matter. At all.

Not that the popular kids were evil villains or anything. We were all simply immature, and learning about relationships. As a grown-up, you discover that the friendships and relationships you have after you've all got a little maturity and relationship-experience under your belts are so much better than any childhood friendships. And this is especially true for kids who had trouble making friends, but later grew up to be fairly successful and respected, like me. And Snape.

From the author's perspective, this (unrequited love) reveal served to increase sympathy for Snape, in case the reader hated him for being so mean to Harry. But the problem is that at this point in the story, Snape is already the unsung underdog, not Harry. If you were already rooting for the underdog, more sympathy is overkill, and the reveal serves merely to add insult to injury.

Now, at this point -- if you're still with me -- you should be saying "Wow, you have thought about this waaaaaaaaaaaaay too much!!"

And to that I answer: "Yes. Yes I have." And I wish I could have that time and mental energy back!! I wish I'd shared a fun and imaginative series with friends that didn't make me go "WTF?!?!?!?!?" so much that I end up obsessing about it until I have to put it to rest by writing a completely pointless essay such as this one.

And this isn't all. I could write another essay about how awful it would be to live in a world where everyone is carrying around a deadly weapon at all times, including children as young as eleven -- not to mention the fact that the people are so dependent on magic that they're practically handicapped if their wand is broken or stolen, etc. But I won't bother.

To be honest, as I said earlier, it is way more fun and less stressful to obsess about what's wrong with Harry Potter than to worry about real problems that affect us for real, like climate change. So, really, I should be thanking J. K. Rowling. (Thanks, JK!!! if you're reading this...)

And, really, all of this doesn't even mean that Harry Potter is without value or enjoyment. It just means that I have to adjust my expectations. I can't approach it in accordance with Mark Twain's quip: "It's no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense." I have to approach Harry Potter the way I approach Star Trek or The Year Without a Santa Claus, and accept that it's not supposed to make sense.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

You know what would be awesome?

If you've been following this blog or any part of the atheosphere lately, you know that famous atheist Richard Dawkins has recently taken to throwing rocks at the hornet's nest he helped build. (In case you've been living in a cave with no wifi, start here and here for some background).

His latest entertaining spectacle was to accuse Adam Lee of lying in his piece in the Gaurdian. The article consists of reprinting a bunch of stuff Dawkins posted, framed by Adam Lee's opinion that Dawkins's behavior is bad for the atheist movement. It's not even necessary debunk the accusation of lying -- it doesn't even make sense. It's like Dawkins has crossed the line from merely displaying a glaring blind spot to seriously giving the impression that he's losing his marbles.

But you know what would be awesome?

Imagine Dawkins posts something even more bizarre tomorrow. Then he posts something even more bizarre the next day. Then he waits a week or two for it to percolate through the community and then announces:

It was all a test. I wanted to see whether my fans really embrace critical thinking. I wanted to see, given a choice between loyalty to me personally and loyalty to the ideals I stand for, who would choose which one.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Win-win for Feminism!!

When I was writing my post the other day on the grand reunification of the feminist movement, I was kind of wondering what it looks like from the other side's perspective. And I think this piece by Amanda Marcotte "There Is No Such Thing as Radical Feminism Anymore" perhaps captures it.

It's very short, so go read it and come back.

I agree essentially with Marcotte's points. I take issue with her refusal to call the anti-trans radical feminists by their chosen name. They still exist, and they still call themselves radical feminists -- they were recently profiled in the New Yorker. And, more to the point, they really are one modern splinter of the radical feminist movement of the 60's and 70's. To deny them that name is a little like saying that the FLDS have no business calling themselves Mormon.

On the other hand, Marcotte is totally right that those radical feminists are not anywhere near the mainstream of the feminist movement. One can certainly argue that they aren't the true intellectual heirs of the earlier radical feminists. Marcotte is also totally right that the original radical feminists brought us a lot of fantastic ideas that are now completely mainstream, at the heart of current feminist thought:
It was not enough to pass the ERA or legalize abortion, they believed, but we should also talk about cultural issues, such as misogyny, objectification, rape, and domestic violence.

Personally, I can't help but feel like "Yay, my team won!!" As I wrote the other day, on the issues I cared about, my position won the mainstream, and sex-positive feminism succeeded in making itself irrelevant.

But the other side won, too. Their bad ideas, like trans-women not deserving to be seen as women, plus the items I mentioned the other day, have been stripped off and shunted to the margins, and their good ideas have won the mainstream of feminist thought. They also succeeded in making themselves irrelevant as a separate movement.

It's the textbook example of a win-win situation.

Stuff the atheists can learn from the feminists!

Whatever happened to sex-positive vs. sex-negative feminism?

Back when I was in college and grad school, I thought there was a significant division within the feminist movement over the question of whether sex is good or bad for women. As I've written, my thoughts on this division have evolved, and it's not just me. The division has disappeared to such a degree that when I was writing my latest post on Saturday, I started wondering whether it ever really was a thing. Was I just hallucinating?

So I got out some of my old feminist books off the shelf, and confirmed that, no, I was not hallucinating. I think the following statement from Ariel Levy in the 20th anniversary edition of Andrea Dworkin's Intercourse kind of sums it up:

With the possible exception of the Shakers, it is difficult to think of an American movement that has failed more spectacularly than antipornography feminism. In the late 1970's, when a prominent faction of the women's liberation movement -- including Brownmiller, Dworkin, Steinem, Morgan, Audrey Lourde, the writer Grace Paley, and the poet Adrienne Rich -- turned their attention to fighting pornography, porn was still something marginalized, as opposed to what it is now: a source of inspiration for all of popular culture. [...] If the antiporn crusade was a losing battle, it was also a costly one: it divided, some would say destroyed, the women's movement. The term "prosex feminist" was coined by women who wanted to distance themselves from the antiporn faction.

The idea was that sexually explicit words and images created for the express purpose of arousal are inherently harmful to women. Not just abuses within the porn industry or negative messages in some types of porn, but the whole kit-and-kaboodle, on principle. It supposedly caused rape. This theory was part of the mainstream of feminist thought as recently as 2006 when I wrote my blog entries "A feminist in favor of porn" and "yes means yes".

One problem with the "porn causes rape" claim is that there was never any evidence to back it up. And, as I explained in "porn and me", that inspired some people to claim that instead of insisting on evidence, we should value supposedly female types of reasoning like intuition or some other such rot -- which made me hate the antiporn feminists all the more.

Then there was this little problem with antiporn crusader Andrea Dworkin muddying the waters on the definition of rape (as I discussed here). In the early days of the Internet, I had the misfortune of getting into a dispute with a feminist who claimed that heterosexual sexual intercourse is inherently degrading to women -- that, regardless of her desire or consent, the mere act of a penis penetrating a vagina is psychologically harmful to the vagina-haver -- and cited Dworkin as proof that this is "the feminist position." I assume this is a misrepresentation of whatever Dworkin said, but the experience reinforced my impression that Dworkin has had a very harmful impact on feminist thought.

As a consequence, people like me ended up going too far in the other direction. As recently as ten years ago, I would have told you that I don't think that feminists should focus on issues like date rape or misogyny. I would have given some reasonable-sounding reasons for this, but looking back, I think it was more a question of the fact that those issues were claimed by Catherine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, and their fans -- and, frankly, I didn't want to be in the same movement with those guys.

But then what happened?

With the rise of the Internet and the corresponding rise in instant access to all sorts of content, the evidence became overwhelming that sexually explicit imagery for the purpose of arousal is not inherently harmful to women -- and, in particular, it does not cause rape. The idea that porn causes rape dropped completely out of the mainstream of feminist thought.

One of the awesome things about this development is that it demonstrates quite conclusively that basing one's conclusions on evidence is a female type of reasoning! The other awesome part is that we don't have feminists debating about whether sex is good or bad across the board -- we've realigned along the idea that consent and autonomous choice are the measures of whether a given sex act is good or bad. And now we're mostly all friends again.

Last Saturday morning I wrote about how making women feel safe and welcome in the atheist movement actually increases the probability of a given straight male atheist getting (consensually) laid. I want to add the disclaimer that that's not the reason why women should be included in the atheist movement. Women should be included in the atheist movement because women are people too, and can contribute to and benefit from the movement just like any other people. However, since the sexists were claiming that the feminists are just a bunch of man-hating prudes, I wanted to make it clear that that's not true. Helping guys get consensual sex is not the point of feminism, however it is a noteworthy side-effect.

Unfortunately, since Saturday morning, Richard Dawkins's descent into taking leave of his critical thinking skills has only gotten more appalling (see these links). He has decided that his new battle is to make sure we lady atheists know our place in the atheist movement.

Sam Harris also got into the act, posting a defense of his claim that critical thinking is a guy thing. Harris surprises me less than Dawkins. Sam Harris is the guy who claimed that guns are on balance beneficial to women, including in situations of domestic violence. He even posted on his FAQ that his debating opponent's case was based on evidence that shows the opposite, yet, instead of wondering (and researching) why that might be, he continued to repeat his initial reasoning for his original (debunked) assertion. That's not how critical thinking works. A similar thing happened when Harris debated a security expert over his idea that airport security should intentionally adopt a policy of racially profiling people who "look like Muslims." Basically the biggest mystery is how this clown got on the stage in the first place.

Does the arc of history bend towards justice? In general, not necessarily. But the atheist movement -- with its love of the scientific method in all its error-correcting glory -- is a different story. The "Men's Rights Activists" that are currently such a blight on our movement...? Their influence will decline and vanish, even if some of our most popular big names choose to sign onto Team Sexism.

In the worst-cast scenario, Richard Dawkins will do about a decade's worth of damage to the atheist movement he helped to create -- and he will flush his own legacy down the toilet in the process. (Are these tweets really what you want to be remembered for, Mr. Dawkins? Because that's the direction you're heading...)

This should be an interesting ride.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Atheism and ruining it for everybody!!

After this latest round of sexy sexism in the atheist community, I've decided it's time for me to weigh in.

I hope that you recall that I'm the lady who advocates having sex on the first date. I am enthusiastically sex-positive. And today I would like to remind you that free love only thrives in an atmosphere where there is a healthy respect for consent.

Back when I was young and cute (before becoming a (happily married) old lady), I would have been more than happy to go to atheist conferences with the express intention of hooking up. And it is the people who are in favor of clear anti-harassment policies at conferences that make that sort of thing possible. I'm sorry to have to explain something that should be a no-brainer, but just because a chick is looking for NSA sex, it doesn't mean that she wants to be harassed or raped by whichever guy sees her first.

If you are a straight guy looking for a little fun and love, the rapists and rape apologists are not doing you a favor. Quite the opposite. Those guys are telling women: "If you wear that, if you get drunk, if you flirt at a conference -- then it's your own fault if you get raped." And when that's the message that wins the day, then that smart, hot, fun girl you might have met at that conference...? She won't be there. She's smart enough not to go.

Richard Dawkins in particular has been putting his foot in his mouth lately with idiotic distinctions. ("Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that's an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think.") Well, let me make one of my own:

Personally, I have never been raped. I have had an ex-boyfriend lock me in an apartment, hold a knife to my throat, and threaten to kill me (see here). Given the choice between the two, I'd say I would have preferred to have been "just" raped. (And, by the same token, I'm pretty damn glad it didn't happen in the US where the equivalent guy would have had a gun -- in which case I probably wouldn't be here typing this today.) But those aren't the choices. It's not like there's one camp that says, "Oh, I would never rape a woman -- sure I like to mutilate and kill them, but not rape them," and the other says, "Oh, would never hurt a woman -- I just like to non-violently harass and rape them." The real two camps are the people see women as autonomous humans and those that don't.

In my situation, it wasn't rape, but it was the same damn thing. It was a question of a man being led to believe that if a woman won't be with him in the way he wants, then he's perfectly justified (as man) in making her do what he wants. She has no business making such decisions for herself.

It is the rapists and rape apologists who say stupid shit like "You should be glad he only raped you -- he might have killed you and cut you up in little pieces." Because those were his options. A normal person says something more like, "Wow, I'm sorry you had any contact at all with that criminal -- he needs to be stopped before he rapes again, or worse."

As far as Dawkins is concerned, I don't think he is for or against hearing more diverse perspectives in the atheist movement. I think it's simply a subject he's never has any reason to think deeply about, and, consequently, unsurprisingly, he has nothing insightful to say on the subject. Unfortunately, because he's the famous guy, he gets quoted on it, and his voice is amplified above the voices of people who actually have expertise and interesting things to say about it.

I agree with Terry Firma that it would be in Dawkins's own interest if somebody would succeed in persuading him to stay the hell away from Twitter. I was thinking that two twitter scandals earlier. But I'm less in agreement about this point Terry made:

It’s not a breakdown of his intellect, which is intact. Rather, Dawkins seems to suffer from an extreme form of tone-deafness. It’s almost as if Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock is modeled after him: cool, rational, detached, and faintly amused by the emotional human fools with whom he is forced to interact.


I think that is an insult to Mr. Spock, who is one of the most awesome fictional characters of all time. I mean, Spock might say insensitive things when asked, but he would have the good sense not to go out of his way to broadcast his random stupid musings.

I think Dawkins's real problem is a debilitating case of "I shit gold" syndrome. After being worshiped for such a long time by so many smart people, he's come to believe that any idea that pops into his head must be made of gold. It has severely compromised his ability to critically analyse his own thoughts and actions, which is unfortunate because (not just criticism, but) self-criticism should be one of the most highly regarded virtues in our movement.

Coincidentally, I should be going to see Dawkins in person today. He's here in Zürich giving a lecture at the Denkfest -- friends of mine will be in attendance. And because I want to make friends with the Zürich Freethinkers (who, I think, organized the thing), I am very hesitant to be typing this. I don't want to be "the difficult one" like I was back in church, many years ago. Yet, I also don't want my attendance to be registered as a vote for "we have to get somebody like Dawkins because he brings in the audience and the money." Therefore, I will be attending tomorrow. I am totally in favor of and impressed by everything about this conference except for the fact that it was billed as "RICHARD DAWKINS!!!! and some other people..."

I hope the local freethinkers will be willing to forgive me for this. I'm sure they are already well aware of how herding cats works. We mean well, but we are simply never going to all get in line.

But hopefully our movement is capable of self-reflection and learning.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Fun at Camp Quest Switzerland!!

So, how was Camp Quest? you ask.

It was a fantastic experience, and I'm really glad my kids and I participated!

If you haven't heard of it, Camp Quest is an organization of secular summer camps -- mostly in the US, but also in the UK and (luckily for me!) here in Switzerland. But before I get into the pictures and what we did there, I would like to explain a bit about why I wanted to participate in this.

As a kid, I always liked going to camp. It was great to be out in nature, doing things that were completely different from my usual life. I even liked sharing tents or cabins with a bunch of other girls (with midnight activities like ghost stories and such) despite the fact that I always had difficulty making friends and being accepted as part of the group with other girls. Whether it was with the Girl Scouts, a school camp, or (most frequently) a Mormon church camp, it was a fun adventure!

Now that I no longer believe nor practice Mormonism, I don't have the built-in community that comes with it. The opportunity of passing camp fun along to the next generation as an adult volunteer is one of the things I gave up when I left the church. Probably many of you are thinking, "I hated camp! Not having to got to camp is one of the perks of being an atheist or a none -- not a drawback!" But, as I've said many times, religion and religious organizations fill many roles in people's lives, and it's totally normal that the parts one person loved may be exactly the parts someone else hated, and vice-versa. So if you hated camp, this post isn't about telling you you're wrong, it's about the variety of different experiences we humans enjoy.

In my case, one of the parts of camp that I hated was the pressure to feel "spiritual" emotions and to sit around and express them in some sort of testimony format. As a Mormon kid, I spent a lot of time trying to psyche myself into liking testimony meetings (and tried desperately to gain a testimony -- this stuff is really important for Mormons), but I was really fighting my built-in reaction that this stuff is really, really creepy and weird. I know a lot of people sincerely like that sort of thing (including people who don't believe in the supernatural), but for me personally, a big perk of Camp Quest was no testimony meeting. Nothing even remotely resembling it.

A lot of people in the non-believer community feel that we shouldn't be doing things to ape religion (like make our own summer camps). And if Camp Quest really isn't about trying to indoctrinate kids to being atheists (i.e. some sort of equal-and-opposite of Jesus Camp), then why bother having a specifically "secular" camp, as opposed to just sending your kids to some sort of generic science camp or something...?

In response, I would say that religion didn't invent summer camp. Summer camp does not inherently have anything to do with ideology, but it's normal to have a variety of camps focused on different themes. Camp Quest Switzerland in 2014 included lots of fun workshops in science, mathematics, and skepticism, but it was not about sitting around telling the kids what to believe or patting ourselves on the back for our shared ideology. In fact, there was another mom who had come along to volunteer as well who is a theist. She doesn't participate in organized religion (she's from a Catholic background, and her husband was from a Muslim background), but she's raising her kids to believe in God. And there's no reason for that to be a problem in this environment.

But why not just a generic science or other camp? Why something that has any ideological connection?

Well, I actually want to be part of a community. I volunteer at my kids' school, I participate in neighborhood events, and I think there's something to be said for participating in local groups with people you share ideas and interests with as well. (My husband and I are planning to join the Zürich Freethinkers as soon as I figure out how to work the website.) For the past few years, we've been sending the kids to Vacances Edcuatives in France during the February vacations (mostly because we don't want our kids to be the only ones in their class who don't ski, yet we don't want to bother to go skiing ourselves), and that has been a good experience -- but it's not the same as participating in a camp that is connected with a real community that you can be a part of.

Now, after all that intro, here's what we did!!


First of all, the location was gorgeous, up in the mountains!

Normally I like to enjoy Switzerland's beautiful mountains from somewhere down on the ground looking up at them. Actually going up into the mountains, riding along on those tiny, winding roads where one slip of the driver's hand could send you falling to your doom -- well, it's the sort of trip that I love in retrospect, after I'm back on the ground alive, like now. And this trip was no exception. 

But seriously, it was very cool to spend a week in a tiny village on the side of a mountain with a beautiful view of the valley and the mountains and mountain villages on the other side. And it was awesome to celebrate the Swiss national holiday (August first) in real Swiss style!


For much of the week, the kids participated in activities offered by the local tourism industry: workshops on making bread and cheese, a hike to a cabin where a local storyteller told us some folk tales in dialect (which I didn't understand at all, BTW, but it was interesting), and a nature hike/treasure hunt.

Plus the adult leaders of Camp Quest offered a series of workshops at the chalet where we were staying. In science and nature, we had an activity learning about the local plants, plus some physics experiments such as making a pickle glow by running electricity through it, and a hands-on biology lab dissecting the heart and lungs of a pig.


There was also an improv theater workshop that my son Léo really enjoyed, and two skepticism-themed workshops: one on illusions and one on homeopathy where the kids got to make their own homeopathic remedies. Note that the kids weren't fed any conclusions about homeopathy -- they simply got to see what it really is, and they were left to draw their own conclusions.

My workshop was a mathematics workshop on tiling the plane. For it, I made about a million Penrose Tiles for the kids to play with:



The Penrose Tiles were fun, but even after having done a few recreational math workshops at my kids' school and now this, I still think my presentation style need work. But it gets a bit better with each experience!

All in all a fun experience -- I hope to send my kids again next year!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What else is wrong with Harry Potter?

Before starting a post like this one, of course I have to start with the disclaimer that I am a fan. I have read all of the books at least twice (to myself, and then as a bedtime story to my kids), and I've seen all the films multiple times. It is only because of the enjoyment I've gotten from the series that I waste time contemplating it and getting bothered by its flaws. Remember the parable of criticism is a complement -- if it were total crap, I wouldn't bother to post about it at all. So I don't want to see any comments accusing me of being a black-hearted Harry Potter-hater.

My second disclaimer is that, yes, I should probably be spending my time on something more important, like, say, climate change. But since it looks like our species is heading into oblivion and there's precious little an individual like me can do to stop it, I like to take my worrying down a notch and worry instead about stuff that really, really doesn't matter. Hence this post.

I've heard tons of different insights on what are the critical flaws of the Harry Potter series. Pretty much all of them were valid criticisms. For me, though, I feel like the top problem is that -- while Harry Potter is an interesting character -- he is not interesting enough to carry seven weighty tomes. I know, he's the chosen one and everything, but the fact that pretty much everything important that happens in his universe revolves around Harry himself and a small circle of friends and acquaintances makes their world seem petty and simplistic. At one point McGonagall asks, "Why is it always you three?" -- and I spent most of the series asking the author the same question. Especially considering that the series has so many other interesting characters that I'd rather be reading about.

Then, since I've been trying to just relax this week, I hit upon the solution! Fan-fic! Who knows what amusing tales the various fans have invented for all of our favorite peripheral characters?

I decided to start with the most incongruous relationship in the entire series: Hermoine and Viktor Krum. So, this guy is one of the most famous sports stars in their entire wizarding world. He could have his pick of girls, to put it mildly. Yet, he falls for the nerdy co-protagonist, who, by the way, isn't even interested in him. I'm not saying it's impossible, but I will say that this relationship requires some explanation/motivation that is sorely lacking in the books and films. But maybe the fans will come to the rescue!

Sadly, the first one I found on this topic was so laden with technical discussion of Quidditch strategy and sports scenes, I was unable to slog through it far enough to get to the point where he takes up with Hermoine. So I gave up on that one and decided to see if I could find some back-story for Regulus Black -- a fascinating character who (as far as I recall) doesn't make an appearance in the real story at all. There I found some interesting tales of his home life with his brother Sirius in their crazy evil London townhouse with their crazy evil parents. Good fun! So I decided to read some more from the Moony-Wormtail-Padfoot-Prongs generation.

Then a curious thing happened. I found it rather upsetting to watch popular sports star James Potter and his fun-loving buddies bullying young Severus Snape -- and winning the hearts of the fans (not to mention the girl) in the process. You can try to blame the fan-fic authors, but they're merely highlighting and expanding upon a key point from the original story.

I've written about bullying before, and I like to believe this is a subject where our culture has made tremendous progress in the past few decades. In stories from the fifties, it was typical to see bullying presented as par for the course, and it was unsurprising to see an author present a scene of bullying with the clear subtext that the victim deserved it because he's such a loser -- and expect the audience to view the bully as the more likable guy overall. It's disappointing to see this happen in a modern story.

As someone who was "different" as a kid -- and consequently bullied by the popular kids -- I naturally identify with Snape a lot more than I do with James and Lily and their friends. And the worst part of the story is that -- unlike a typical real-world bullying situation -- in this case the whole "it gets better" thing didn't happen. After being traumatized as a teen, Snape went on to be a bitter, spiteful, miserable person until he died.

Don't get me wrong -- of course he was also awesome. I think Snape is hand down the best character in the series. And the actor in the films did a fantastic job of interpreting the character -- better than what was in the books alone. But the stuff that happened to him was awful.

Then I started feeling like a huge idiot because is there any stupider waste of emotional energy than sitting around feeling sorry for a fictional character? I need to get out there and find some real people with real problems whom I can help for real. ;)

In the meantime, allow me to present how it should have ended:


Sunday, July 06, 2014

Teaching kids to program with Android!

I finally updated my professional blog (for the first time in more than a year, lol) -- I wrote up a programming project I did for/with my kids.  I made a simple application called "SpriteFun" for the Android phone to help my kids learn programming.  Here it is!