Wednesday, December 31, 2008

I'd like to wish you a Happy New Year, but...

Everyone reading this is probably aware of the precarious position we're in. Global warming is proceeding faster than the worst projections, and it's not just a question of everyone feeling a little warmer. Small changes in climate can have dramatic effects on the worlds ecosystems that have already been fragilized to the breaking point by human use. Changes in weather patterns can change storm patterns, destroying not only human habitations (such as New Orleans), but also potentially devastating shallow-water ecosystems such as coral reefs that form a key component of the ocean life systems that we humans rely on for food. Similarly, as if the lungs of the Earth (the tropical rainforests) weren't already in enough peril from direct destruction by humans, human-induced climate change may well finish the job.

But we can solve this, right? If you look around at our modern marvels, it would appear that we humans can create anything that we can possibly imagine. Unfortunately, these miracles are built on more than just human ingenuity and the shoulders of giants -- they're also built on a gigantic trust fund of free energy that we happened to find buried in the Earth's crust. And at the rate we're going, we'll have it spent within a generation or so. World peak oil production is right around the corner (if we haven't already passed it), and worldwide demand for energy is going nowhere but up. We're nowhere near getting ourselves weaned off of fossil fuels, and -- given our society's dependence on energy-intensive activities such as agriculture and transportation of food and people -- it's not clear the Earth minus its oil reserves will be able to support our population of six billion (and growing).

Part of the problem is increased energy consumption in the "developing world." Naturally people want to emulate the (currently) rich countries, and unfortunately they're doing it by making the same mistakes. Developing countries will be in a better position in the long run if they can manage to skip the dead-end step of refitting their cities to be more "car-friendly." But moving towards sustainability will probably require widespread literacy and education, goals that can't be accomplished simply or overnight.

Even apparently sustainable activities like agriculture and drinking fresh water aren't as sustainable as you might hope. Irrigation-based farming can lower the (fresh) water table and affect the quality of the soil in just a few seasons. Overgrazing can harm plant life beyond its ability to recover, and the resulting erosion does the rest. Sure, with effort humans can make the desert bloom, but for how long? And what will it look like afterward? The deserts have spread and expanded over the past few millennia of human use, even without the current global warming catastrophe to speed things up. It's true that modern industrial farming techniques have changed all the rules about how much food humans can produce per acre, but unfortunately this technological miracle (not only in terms of machinery but also in terms of chemical fertilizers and pesticides) is largely based on inexpensive petroleum. (This is why I'm wary of "biofuels" as a solution to our energy problems -- a moment's reflection should make it clear that "biofuels" are nothing more than an incredibly inefficient and environmentally costly type of solar power.)

So are we capable of re-orienting our society towards something reasonably sustainable? I think we could if every human on the planet were to make sustainability a life-or-death priority. Yet -- while we humans are capable of surviving and adapting to amazing hardships when we have to -- it seems we're incapable of making even minor lifestyle changes for an intangible like "future generations."

Even if we see that investments in energy efficiency today can save us a lot in the long run, it's not clear we have the capacity to make any kind of real investments. People keep saying that Obama will have difficulties if the economy gets worse. I ask what do they mean "if"? Energy will become a lot more expensive, and we have no particular reason to project any respite. Meanwhile U.S.-style sprawl means that U.S. cities require several times as much energy per capita to run than their Asian and European counterparts. Then there's the economic crisis. The U.S. economy today is largely based on debt-fueled consumer spending, with an enormous trade deficit. I don't see how this can be viewed as a viable long-term economic strategy, yet the common wisdom still says that as long as we can keep "consumer confidence" (hence consumer spending) up, then everything will go back to normal, and the U.S. will continue to be an economic powerhouse indefinitely.

Your Libertarian friends will tell you that one of the mechanisms of the market is the fact that those who make bad investments go under, but the U.S. government has been cheating by habitually insuring the banking and financial industries. So investments are allowed to grow, but with a safety net that gets hoisted up higher as it goes, since it would be unthinkable for any wealth to disappear once it has been created, no matter how dubiously. But rather than escaping the discipline of the market, it looks like we've merely moved the risk up a level. The U.S. government (hence the American people) are now the ones who have made too many bad investments, and we're getting to the point where it's no longer realistic to suppose that the national debt can ever be paid off. The "almighty dollar" is barely holding its own against other foreign currencies, and (since the Saudi princes will no longer be motivated by helping their friend Mr. Bush) the dollar could take another hit if OPEC starts demanding payment in another currency. We could easily get to the point where the U.S. can no longer even "service" the debt (i.e. pay the interest). American common wisdom says that debt is not a problem because we can always grow the economy to dwarf it. I ask: grow it on what? More debt? Air? This is the economic strategy I like to call "patching Reagan's balloon" (a.k.a. "Voodoo economics"). We've just bought another 700 billion dollar patch that we can't afford -- do you think it will hold? Looking at this from the perspective of someone living outside the U.S., I'd say this bailout will provide the liquidity so that foreign interests can disentangle themselves from the U.S. financial industry as much as possible without losing their shirts. The shirt-losing will come later, to someone closer to your home.

A better investment would have been to spend the 700 billion on rebuilding America'a rail network, and getting it up to the technology level of Europe and the far east. Train travel is by far the most efficient type of travel, and (unlike planes, trucks, and automobiles) it's already largely electric, simplifying the transition off of fossil fuels. The more energy costs increase, the more you'll wish you had that efficient train network. Unfortunately, it would appear that the U.S. government is incapable of making intelligent investments. Uncle Sam can whip out the public credit card for some types of emergencies ("Oops! The banking industry royally screwed up!" or "Oops! That war we started cost way more than we ever expected!"), but can't seem to plan ahead. American common wisdom says that any investment that benefits the whole society is tyranny (socialism!). It's this same faulty common wisdom that causes Americans to think that somebody at the top (Greenspan, perhaps?) can just tweak a few variables and turn the right knobs to "fix" the economy without people having to make even the most obvious planning-ahead-type lifestyle changes (solar panels anyone? A smaller dwelling, closer to work, perhaps? A little less meat on that sandwich? A bicycle?).

Since Obama seems to have bought into this the-bailout-will-fix-everything common wisdom, you may be wondering why I campaigned for him so hard. It's simple. From reading his books, I gather that he has the clear head and leadership skills to unite the country and guide us (hopefully in the right direction) through the coming crisis. He's the one who seemed most likely to be able to avoid that other deadly-wrong bit of American common wisdom: that the solution to economic crisis is war. A President Palin would surely have "solved" our planet's problems by finding us an enemy to nuke. And while that solution may well benefit some species on Earth (by ridding the planet of its most destructive species), it won't help us much.

So, good luck! And happy 2009...

Monday, December 22, 2008

The magic of imagination

There may well be some good reasons to tell your kids that Santa Claus is real. However, today I'd like to talk about one common argument for Santa-ism that I find unconvincing: the idea that belief in Santa encourages imagination.

I think that telling kids the Santa story -- with all its strange and amazing trappings -- definitely encourages imagination. But (imagination-wise) I don't see any added benefit in telling them that it's real.

For full disclosure, I'll admit that I'm sort of half-heartedly playing along with the Santa charade for Léo this year, mostly because I've found that hinting that Mom and Dad bought the presents causes a huge tantrum to have the presents now. At the age of five, "You can't have your train set now because Santa's not bringing it until Christmas" is a lot easier to understand than "You can't have your train set now because opening all the presents on Christmas morning is a fun tradition that we love." (I think his seven-year-old brother Nico is wavering, though, and is leaning towards figuring out that it's all a game.)

In order to analyze this question, I've been noting down some of my kids' fantasy play lately. Here are some examples:

* As I mentioned here, Nico's study of the Solar System has inspired Léo to invent a new Solar System (called the "The Invented Solar System"), which includes multiple giant Earths and -- most importantly -- it's the home of the planet "where live the pitcher poo-poots" (Léo's planet). Pitcher poo-poots, by the way, are a carnivorous plant which (I think) Léo invented when Nico was studying carnivorous plants. You can hear him mention them from offstage during Nico's nature documentary. Another interesting fact he told me about the planet where live the pitcher poo-poots is that the numbers there are finite. Where live the pitcher poo-poots you count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, "dek", "el", "doe", 100 -- then you're done. (Bonus points to anyone who can guess where "dek", "el", and "doe" come from!)

* During a recent snow storm, Nico became enamored with the idea that Snow Miser sent it, and he started drawing all sorts of diagrams of how Heat Miser and Snow Miser control the weather. I asked him "Now you know that Heat Miser and Snow Miser don't really exist, right?" (People get annoyed at me for pointing out that Santa and God aren't real, but I can't get in trouble for telling kids that Heat Miser and Snow Miser aren't real, can I?) Nico said that Of course he knows that, and explained that it's just pretend, and then went right back to his drawings of which one controls which region during which part of the year. Léo agreed, and went on to add a third Miser brother -- "Train Miser" -- who sends trains all over the world!

* Léo has invented an alternate Santa Claus, called "Pirate Santa Claus." Pirate Santa Claus is different from regular Santa Claus in that he has two bags of toys, but all the toys are scary toys (as in The Nightmare before Christmas). Pirate Santa Claus also has a sister who has a long white beard. However, Pirate Santa Clause does not have an eye patch. (I learned these facts when I was helping Léo draw Pirate Santa Claus.)

You can take this evidence both ways. After all, Léo is the more fervent Santa-ist, and he's the one who came up with all the off-the-wall fantasy stories on this list, starting largely from real-life facts he learned from his science-minded older brother Nico. Nico joins in on playing in Léo's imaginary universe, but (left to his own devices) he's more inclined to draw things that are real. On the other hand, in Léo's imaginary world, it doesn't seem to matter much whether the initial stories he uses as raw material are true or not.

Also note that believing a story is true can potentially constrain creativity. I recall that my own (devoutly religious) mom didn't care for Nestor the Donkey or "The Little Drummer Boy" simply because if the birth of Jesus story is true, then you can't just embellish it with lots of made-up characters and episodes as though it were a legend. Yet I remember (as a child) doing elaborate drawings of Santa's workshop -- knowing full well that it wasn't real -- with Mom's approval. That was the beauty of it: if you know it's a legend, you're at liberty to embellish it however you like.

So I'm still not entirely convinced that saying I believe in Santa Claus -- and meaning it -- is more magical than allowing Santa to live in a world of pure imagination. :D

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Christmas™ brand

Nestor was a donkey who had ears that dragged the ground...

I think we all know this story, right?

Once upon a time a singing cowboy named Gene Autry sang Johnny Marks's song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and it became a huge hit! Autry -- perhaps feeling bad about his role in making secular Christmas celebrations so Holly Jolly -- later helped write a song that told a Christian version of the same story:

"Nestor the Long-Eared Donkey" saves Christmas by carrying the baby Jesus (inside Mary) -- instead of Santa -- through a sand storm. He alone is able to navigate the storm because of his strange deformity (long ears instead of a glowing red nose), which the other animals had mocked him for, not letting him join in any donkey games and all that.

There are differences in the two stories, of course. This story doesn't have a misfit elf dentist or an abominable snow monster. Instead it has the most annoying cliché in the grand book of standard formulas: the mom sacrifices herself (and dies) as a plot device to set up her son's grand adventure (see also Ice Age).

Christians have written a number of incredibly beautiful and moving Christmas hymns over the centuries. And I imagine that a Christian worship service is probably the emotional center of the Christmas celebration for many people. But this holiday wasn't invented by or for Christianity. It's more than just a celebration of Jesus' birth, and that's okay, or it should be.

Given that the mid-winter festival of lights (in all of its names and incarnations) tends to be a bit of a party holiday, I'd say that taking every aspect of the holiday that people like and trying to re-brand it as Christian™ is a tad ill-advised. Take this Nestor story, for example. It sure gives the impression that the Jesus story is just a pale imitation of the real Christmas story (the one about Santa...).

Now, I know that Christians in general can't be blamed for this one production by Rankin/Bass. Rankin/Bass produced a few gems and did a whole lot of recycling in between. (Note: the third film that's on the DVD with Nestor and The Year without a Santa Claus is their New Year's special about the baby New Year who also gets mocked for having freakishly big ears.) But this isn't the only example of ill-advised Christian Christmas re-branding. You can probably guess what I'm talking about: Bill O'Reilly's "War on Christmas."

The "War on Christmas" has taken a truly surreal turn this year as the forces of CHRISTmas have decided that the over-the-top consumer spending orgy must be credited to "Christmas" alone. They're distributing a list of naughty and nice stores -- naughty meaning only that the merchants failed to stamp their advertisements with the Merry Christmas™ brand.

The thing that jumps out at me about this list is the second-to-last entry in the "nice" column: Wal-Mart. Apparently creating a buying frenzy so rabid that one of your employees is trampled to death is not enough to get your "nice" status revoked. Wal-Mart wasn't even moved to some sort of provisional list or something. So Jesus is more than okay with this orgy of consumerism -- He wants to be sure He gets the credit for it...?

I just hope these "War on Chrismas" folks from the "Liberty Counsel" don't really represent most Christians. They clearly don't represent anyone sane.

Now I'd like to wish you all a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!!! And a Happy Monkey too!!!

And remember, Christmas isn't just about presents and it isn't just about Jesus. As the Grinch learned, it's a little bit more. :D

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

How'd I forget this one?

This morning's snowstorm had my kids singing "I'm Mr. White Christmas!"

It's my favorite Christmas special, and it's the one that teaches us that catchy tunes, colorful characters, and memorable scenes are far more important than trivialities such as internal consistency or a plot that makes sense. Actually, in my elaborate analysis of the fabulous world of Heat Miser and Snow Miser, I found that the crazy non-sequiturs are a part of the fun! :D

Maybe they don't like reindeer in these parts. I know what -- we'll make her a disguise!

Take your socks off!

Instant Rover!

Wait a minute -- weren't his socks striped?

Actually, once I slowed this down enough to take the screenshots, I saw that the socks were, in fact, two-sided. So, sadly, one of the random inconsistencies is resolved. *sigh*

Oh, well, there are still lots of others. ;^)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Not Exactly Schoolhouse Rock...

me: Who's Jesus?
Léo: He's a jokemeister! He's a funny guy!

That was the follow-up quiz after I used Proposition 8, the Musical to teach Léo about Jesus...

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The gift of (sexual) fantasy

Writing erotica is hard.

For starters, writing a good story period is hard -- but erotica presents special challenges on top of that. An erotic story should be arousing to at least a good portion of the audience, yet different people are turned on by vastly different cues and story lines. To make matters worse, what's hot to one person is icky to another (and vice-versa). (I gather some people found my bad public sex stories arousing, even if that wasn't exactly the intention.) On top of all that, one's sexual fantasies are an incredibly personal thing to share. For myself, I usually invent my own situation and characters (with an elaborate and detailed back-story, etc.), but I'd hesitate to write them down -- because of what people would think. Hell, I even hesitate to tell you which storie(s) from The Best of Best American Erotica 2008 made me read them one-handed (so to speak), and I like writing about sex!!

Naturally, I was impressed with Susie Bright's "Best of the Best" anthology. As I explained in my top 10 erotic books post, after reading some of the more famous/popular erotic works (that didn't happen to match my particular kink), I kind of put the whole genre on the shelf. But this anthology is a better starting point than complete erotic novels if you'd like to give erotica a try -- it contains so many different types of scenarios that there's a high probability that at least one will tickle you in just the right way. And even the ones that don't have you reaching for your toys or partner are interesting enough to read just as stories.


Well, since this book is already the product of winnowing down fifteen years of erotic literature to just "the best of the best," I hate to winnow it down further. But I'll mention a few of my favorites:

Blue Light is one of the most fascinating as a story. I didn't find it arousing since (contrary to recent findings that straight women are aroused by all gender/orientation combinations), gay sex stories (of either gender) kind of leave me going "Meh, whatever." The Desires of Houses is at once beautiful and entertaining, while Tennessee is poignant and moving. Fleshlight is fun; Horny is intriguing. The well-known essay Are We Having Sex Now or What? is thought provoking as always -- so much so that it's inspired me to put up a related discussion (about Mormon sexuality) over on The Visitors' Center.

I think my favorite was probably The Casting Couch. Here's what the author says about it:

I liked writing a story that worked the way fantasy does -- switching points of view, starting and dropping story lines and scenes.

In my opinion, she succeeded at that goal. So, not only is it a fun fantasy, but the author really did capture the flow of a fantasy and make it work as a story rather than trying to squeeze a fantasy into a standard story format. I'll admit that when I mentally replayed it I recast the evil boss as a guy (which totally destroys any rainbow-friendly aspect and makes the story not-at-all P.C., but c'est la vie).

And now, the obligatory seasonal question: Should you get this book as a Christmas (or other holiday) present for all your closest friends?

It depends on how intimate you are (or want to be) with them. ;^)

Sunday, December 07, 2008

And Sedna little Sedna is the farthest planet from our Sun!

That's what the kids are singing at my house tonight. I guess they've been watching too much Schoolhouse Rock and Hubble Telescope Movies...

In unrelated news, the latest Carnival of the Godless is the "Holiday Feast Edition." Mmmm, it's beginning to look a lot like "War on Christmas" season again! (As you can see from the What Would Jesus Buy? post.)

And here's a fun local-interest item: A few years ago, I read a fascinating book about baboon behavior called In Quest of the Sacred Baboon, full of interesting analysis and discussion of baboon habits and family structure. Most of the book is about observing various species of baboons in the wild, but the initial studies took place at the zoo right here in Zürich! From the pictures, it looks like the studies (which took place fifty years ago) were actually in the same baboon enclosure where my familiy and I had viewed the local baboons ourselves -- right up until this past month when they built a new baboon habitat.

So I just wrote a new post for Rational Moms about all of the amazing science and conservation work done at the local zoo, not to mention how much fun it is!!!

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Lazy postin'

A lot of bloggers try to stick to some crazy rule like post every single day, or at least try to post a few times per week. Unfortunately, I have too many blogs for that (not to mention a job and a family), so I have to spread 'em around.

So I just put up a couple of light discussions on other blogs, one mocking Chris Buttars (if you don't know who that is, don't worry -- I shouldn't, yet I do), and one about criticizing the parenting skills of random strangers. Enjoy!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Emily Postum rides the Swiss tramway!

For us non-upper-crusters, etiquette is more than just pairing the right fork with your truffle canapés and instructing the serving maid not to clatter the dishes. You may think the rules of when to serve canvasback (à la Age of Innocence), or which seasonal stationery and flower combinations are appropriate for your haiku or waka (à la Tale of Gengi) are far more complex than the rules normal people have to deal with on a daily basis. Maybe. But I'd like to see Gengi try riding the tramway in Switzerland.

This is one of the first cultural items I learned upon moving to Zürich from Bordeaux. The tramway system in Bordeaux was brand-new, so the social rules were still sort of in flux. There were cute little zoo animal posters inside illustrating how to make everyone's ride more pleasant (eg. retract your quills and backpacks, avoid loud cell-phone conversations). People were willing to make an effort, but the entry and exit procedure was still a little chaotic, like they didn't really have it down. Yet. Not like in Switzerland.

Rule #1: When the tramway (or bus or commuter train) stops, you walk up to the door and stand beside it, forming a bit of a wedge-shaped line on the platform or sidewalk whose apex is just beside the doorway.

Rule #2 important: Do not block the doorway of the tram. at all. Every single person getting off the tramway must have a clear path straight ahead in order to exit. If there's a crowd coming out and you are blocking someone's exit path (because you're hoping to get on), the exiter won't just squeeze around you (like in France), they'll just walk up to you and wait until you get the hell out of the way. And this will hold up the entire exit/entry procedure. And it will be all your fault.

Rule #3: How do you know when you've screwed up? This is the easy one. You will know. You'll get a (free!) crash course in Swiss tramway etiquette from the school of (polite, furtive) shocked and horrified facial expressions.

I've just learned, however, that #3 is one that actually varies within Switzerland. I had Switzerland's other two fabulous exmo expat ladies over for drinks and jokes, and naturally we ended up comparing notes on Swiss customs. Wry Catcher -- who lives in a smaller city than Zürich -- said that the folks in her town will actually lecture strangers for infractions that are too serious for mere dirty looks. Say, you break Rule #4: Don't even think about getting on until everyone who's getting off is off (even if they're taking a long time and there's plenty of room to go around them). Or you break Rule #5: Do not come running up to the tramway and cut in front of someone who is politely waiting (in accordance with rule #4). You'll get an earful of Switzerdeutsch. And if you try to get out of it by feigning incomprehension, your instructor will gladly (or rather, angrily) give you your lesson in English.

Those stories surprised me quite a bit because it's not like that in Zürich. My experience is somewhat limited since I've been here less than a year, but I love public transportation, so I'm in the S-Bahn (commuter train), tramway, and bus all the time, and -- from what I've seen -- I'd be very surprised to see someone chew out a stranger. Here they have more of a "politeness one-upmanship" thing going, where you silently let people know they've screwed up without ever descending to the level of being impolite yourself.

The incident that really captured Zürich-style politeness for me was one I saw a few weeks ago while I was riding the escalator up from one of the underground train platforms. The escalator has a standing lane and a walking lane, clearly indicated by the yellow shoes painted on the steps. Yet, up ahead, I saw two ladies standing abreast in flagrant violation of what I'll call Rule #6: no standing in the walking lane. This wouldn't be a problem except that some guy was coming up behind them in the walking lane and clearly wanted to continue. Rather than saying something or trying to squeeze around the offending lady, he just leaned forward -- ever so slightly in her space over her left shoulder -- in hopes she'd see him in her peripheral vision and catch a clue and get out of the way. But she never did notice. She just continued conversing with her friend as the guy repeated his subtle leaning-in hint several times as we all rode up to the top. (Personally, I was standing in the right lane, so this situation didn't concern me except for the chuckle factor.) At the top we all filed off, and Lady Wrong-Lane was none the wiser about her infraction.

(Actually this story kind of contradicts my Rule #3, but perhaps it should have an addendum: "You will know unless you're totally oblivious to social cues.")

As amusing as this restraint is, it can actually get to be a little annoying to have to constantly keep a (peripheral) eye out to make sure you aren't blocking (hence inconveniencing) someone. I kind of miss the French system where (when things get crowded) you can just say "Pardon" as you squeeze your way through. "Pardon" is a convenient all-purpose word that can mean "I'm genuinely sorry I bumped you," and can also mean "FYI -- you're in the way -- coming through," depending on the tone and context. My two expat friends assured me that this is just a Zürich thing and that there really is an equivalent word in Switzerdeutsch, but I haven't learned it because it seems like here you just don't bump people no matter how crowded the trains or the aisles of the little city shops may be.

Then, of course, there's Rule #7: Keep your kids well-behaved.

Nico is demonstrating correct tramway procedure

Some conversation is fine, but letting your kids run around, yell, scream, and generally bother people is not okay. Oh, and the parent is responsible for ensuring that the kids follow rules 1-6, and all of the other hundreds of rules. (Actually, I think I'm going to have to give up on the numbering because I don't think I'll succeed in getting a comprehensive list.)

Sometimes when my kids are being a little rowdier than they should, people turn and smile, as if to say "It's okay, kids are like that, and the tramway's not too crowded today." But it really is an indulgence that they're granting you because they can just as easily turn and give you that horrified look that says "The nerve of some people! In my day children were polite!" Parents here catch their kids immediately and give a quick but firm lecture the second the child might be bothering someone. It seems like it's as much for the benefit of the bystanders as for the kid, as if to say "Don't worry, I've got it under control." It may be my imagination, but it seems that the minorities are quicker about it than the white people, quieting the child and then looking up and around with the smile that says "See? under control" since nobody wants to be someone else's example of "what's wrong with those people".

Personally, I don't care that much if I'm giving a bad impression of Americans by scolding my rowdy little boys in American English (though occasionally I'll talk to them in French to give people a bad impression of the French for variety). But I do try to follow all of the unwritten rules as well as I can. After all, they're not just totally arbitrary rules that show off the "good breeding" of the people who are in the know. Rather, for humans (social animals that we are) everyone's ride on the train, bus, or tramway is a little simpler and more pleasant if we know what to expect from the millions of strangers we share the city with each day.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Well, now I know what I'm missing...

Here's another Internet miracle for you skeptics out there!

Since I've moved to Europe, it's not as easy to go "home for the holidays" as it once was. And Thanksgiving somehow doesn't quite make the cut of holidays that warrant a transatlantic voyage.

But I might wonder -- as I'm preparing my kids their "lazy mom" dinner of PB&J and/or nutella on whole wheat with a fruit -- what I'm missing out on back home in Minnesota...

[Screen goes wavy as we cut to the imagination sequence, which you can experience too by clicking here!]

Yep, over on By Common Consent my brother posted a video of the Thanksgiving dinner I'm missing!! And -- as an added convenience for the busy blogger -- he sped it up to be only three minutes from table set to table cleared, and added some homey twangin' background music! It's (sorta) just like being there!!

The video is actually last year's Thanksgiving, but I'd be very surprised if this year's is any different.

(I wonder if they've set up a web cam, just in case...)

Happy Holidays!!!

Saturday, November 22, 2008


There's a great new batch of carnivals out there for your reading pleasure!!

My favorite new one is the 2nd Skeptical Parent Crossing!!! This one finally allowed me to live out my secret fantasy of being ruthlessly chewed-out by a super-manly drill sergeant... ;^)

Then there's 28th Humanist Symposium, where Jeffrey Stingerstein has matched up a bunch of great new humanist articles with corresponding clever atheist quips!!! The homosecular gaytheist brings us the 104th Carnival of the Godless, and get that one while it lasts since the organizers are talking about discontinuing it!! Paul's analysis of the god-shaped vacuum deservedly made it to both (I'll add that I don't have a "god-shaped vacuum" in me, either).

Then, I was thinking of doing this meme that King Aardvark tagged me for, mostly because I think now is a good time to link to his blog and recommend his fun and fascinating epic adventures at Alpha Course. But I started on the meme -- and got to the question "5 things on my to do list today" -- and realized that I'd already already wasted too much time on the Internet today just reading the blogs in those carnivals and in my daily reader. :D

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Is it really better to have loved and lost?

This is a question I've tried to answer since I was a teenager.

On the one hand, feeling your heart on fire with passion is being alive; wishing for calm tranquility is like wishing for death. As an atheist, I suppose I should know that emotions are in your head, but I believe in the metaphor, at least, of feeling it in your heart.

On the other hand, is there anything more crushing, more utterly humiliating, than unrequited love?

To look forward to that one moment per day (or so) when you know you'll see him; to replay your brief exchange over and over in your mind, not wanting to do anything else but remember it; planning, rehearsing the clever things you'll say next time; knowing all the while that he doesn't care in the slightest and hasn't given you conversation a second thought.

I remember studying Dante in High School, and learning how noble his unrequited love for Beatrice was. I didn't buy it. Sure, I thought, maybe it seems cool if you're that one-in-a-billion who can turn it into a fantastic epic poem, but for the other nine-hundred ninety-nine million, etc., it just means you're the loser that someone else didn't want.

So I spent many years trying to rid myself of this emotion at all costs, trying to convince myself not live and not pine. The memory came back to me recently when by chance I heard a familiar chorus:

It's too late baby, now it's too late
Though we really did try to make it
Something inside has died and I can't hide
And I just can't fake it...

And suddenly I was transported back to a moment many years ago:

Myself, sitting in an airplane on the tarmac, waiting to take off, with this song blaring from the plane's interior speakers as the passengers took their seats. The words seem trite, yet the deepest emotions are somehow the simplest.

There I was, setting off on my fantastic adventure that I'd built for myself, willing myself to believe the words. It's too late, yes, yes, it's too late. Yes, that painful ember in my heart is dead, though I knew that it wasn't.

Unrequited love, the humiliation of it, has become my favorite topic for a sort of cynical humor (see Youth Conference). It's so horrifyingly absurd not to be able to let go of that razor-sharp shard of hope -- sometimes for years -- that there's nothing to do but try to make light of yourself. Add a little distance in hopes of turning tragedy into comedy.

That and pour a glass of wine and listen to sad songs, and feel it; get it out.

Ah, it's hard to love.
Ah, it's hard
not to love...

This is me 2

Okay, no more hiding behind old photos like I did last time -- here's what I look like now, at age 37:

I'm thinking this photo is a good metaphor for my life these days: I'm not sure there's a point to my efforts -- maybe it all just leads to sitting on top of a wall in the sunshine for a little while.

But why not? It's fun.

On the other hand, I feel like this is the one that really captures my life in Switzerland:

Looking through my recent photos, I noticed that -- despite my goal to try to dress better to fit in with all these snazzy Swiss people -- I still don't have any fashion sense:

And when I found this next one, it hit me that it's one of the only photos of me at home:

When I was living in my old house in Bordeaux, my excuse for not cleaning (see here) was that the house was in such a state of disrepair that it never really looked nice inside -- even when clean -- so why bother? But now that we've moved to a nice apartment in Zürich, I've discovered that I just have some sort of Midas touch for turning a dwelling into a total pig sty. Of course, I do have some help on this task:

You may also be wondering why my husband is never in any of these photos. Actually, he's in all of them, just on the other side of the camera. Here's what he looks like these days:

Actually, he doesn't look quite like that this week because I gave him a much better haircut since that photo was taken.

And now, if you'll indulge me, I'll throw in one old photo:

This is one of my favorite photos of myself with Nico as a baby. The lighting makes it look (to me) like a religious painting.

One time (a couple of years ago) I posted this photo to my blog with the caption "Madonna and Child" or something stupid like that. Then I woke up the next day -- wondering how I could ever have thought that was clever -- and deleted it in a fit of embarrassment. That incident was the inspiration for my post on booze. As I explained at the wedding in Brittany, the Internet provides whole new dimensions of ways to embarrass yourself while drinking. ;^)

Or maybe I don't even need the alcohol to be ridiculous on the Internet. Oh well, I've gotta be me!!! :D

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Napkin art!

I'm looking forward to the day we won't have ot pay for dinner anymore -- Nico will just leave one his dinner napkin masterpieces and that will cover it. ;^)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Finally getting a little respect around here! ;^)

My little visit to the solar system got picked up by the blogosphere departments of both Wired and Discover magazines!!! (Read the comments of both articles to discover whether there's a scale model of the solar system near you!)

Thanks Chris Radcliff and Phil Plait!!! :D

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Zurich: Transportation Paradise!!

Here's what I love most about Zürich: amazingly convenient transportation!!!

I was thinking about this while writing up my latest Rational Moms post: Our Visit to the Solar System! Not only is it cool that there's a "Planetenweg" (planet trail) up in the nearby mountains, but in fact the trip there is quicker and simpler by train than it would be to go by car. As much as I raved about public transportation in France (see here and here), I think Swiss public transportation may be even better, especially in terms of taking the train to all sorts of nature hikes all over the countryside.

Here are some pictures to illustrate why I love being car-free:

I don't have to keep my eyes on the road, so -- during the ride -- I can pay attention to my kids!

And if you read my Solar System post carefully, you may have noticed that it's no big deal for my kids (ages 7 and 5) to spend a few hours hiking through the mountains. That's a typical Sunday outing for us. The thing is that -- while the train network will take you just about everywhere in Switzerland -- it might not take you right up to the door of where you're going. So walking becomes second-nature.

Walking's good for you, it's fun, and feels great! Even for kids!

Despite all this, many people in Zürich drive everywhere they go anyway. (Why? I have no idea -- it is a great mystery.) To get people thinking about transportation, the city threw a fabulous downtown street festival called "Zürich Multimobil" -- my kids loved it!!!

So, we're off to find something fun to do. Ta!

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Haven't we moved out of this constellation yet?

So, I totally failed in my goal to stop writing about proposition 8 and move on to other topics. Mercifully (for those of you who have moved on), I've confined my latest batch to Main Street Plaza: Resign in protest?, Sunday in Outer Blogness: broken promises Edition!, and Free expression basics, and LDS newsroom meme. (My MSP co-blogger Hellmut seems to suffering from the same inability to stop writing about this, producing such articles as Peace, Order and Religious Freedom and Taking the Long Term View on Marriage Equality.)

Thanks for bearing with me, and I promise I really do have some fun, positive, and totally not-election-related stuff in store for this coming week!! :D

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Every problem can be solved with a laser

Nico: I'm going to be one of those guys who solves other guys' problems!
me: How are you going to do that?
Nico: I have a laser.
me: [laughing] So every problem can be solved with a laser?
Nico: No... [thinks about it a long time] Yes, every problem can be solved with a laser.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Now for the real election news...

My little brother and his wife were interviewed for their local news while standing in line to vote!!! My sister-in-law is the one around 2:19 who says they should have brought snacks. (You may recognize them from the wedding photos I posted eons ago.)

I've looked forward to this day for so long, and I wish I could be out whole-heartedly celebrating Obama's victory! But I'm really disappointed and disheartened to see that Proposition 8 has probably passed. (Is it really over and lost?) I was hoping that the Mormons would learn a valuable lesson from this about love vs. hate, and that all those families' legal protection would be spared, and the healing would begin. I kept thinking that if you appeal to people's better nature and hold them up to high expectations, they'll come through. Pretty stupid, huh?

I'm looking out my window at the black silhouette of leaves waving against a gray sky. I don't have anything clever or scathing to say to my people for the moment, I'm just disappointed.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Still "Cultural Mormon"? Even now?

With the Proposition 8 race all over the national news, it's a bit of a difficult time to be any kind of Mormon, even an atheist cultural Mormon. This huge and dramatic effort to stop gay people -- as the one moral question of our time worth standing up for -- puts the spotlight on the institutional LDS church's shameful history with race (which continues to some degree to this day). Many Mormon moderates want to claim that bigotry isn't what Mormonism is all about (as Hellmut and I have been trying to do over on Main Street Plaza), but then why are so many Mormons so quick to drop everything for this fight as soon as their leaders tell them to? Either intolerance is a central tenet of the religion or unquestioning, (I normally refuse to use this word, but) cult-like obedience is. Either way, it looks like there's something very wrong with this people.

I'm currently reading The Bookseller of Kabul, and was touched by a powerful chapter about a teenage boy (on his first trip away from his family) who sees the problems around him and prays that one day he will be proud of being an Afghan. What can I say? I would like to be proud of my heritage as well. I hope that people who feel that there's more to Mormonism that this ugliness are in a good position to make it so.

I've talked about being a cultural Mormon from the beginning of this blog, about my fondness for literary portraits of Mormon culture (even faithful ones), and my adventures with the mishies. I've written my own stories of Mormonism, and have even tried my hand at being an ambassador from my tribe to another.

And, regardless of what Mormons and others think, for better or for worse, I doubt I'll stop any time soon... ;^)

Saturday, November 01, 2008

I'm glad we're trying new and original things, but...

I read the first four chapters of Bryan Trent's Remembering Hypatia: A Novel of Ancient Egypt. And, well...

I just couldn't convince myself this was taking place anywhere near ancient Egypt. I felt like I was reading a modern story dressed up in hokey period costume.

Now, that alone wouldn't make me reject the story. After all, I like Errol Flynn's Robin Hood -- silk tights in Sherwood Forest and all. But in this case, the characters and their situation didn't hook my interest enough to make me want to overlook the questionable trappings and keep reading. Not when I was tempted by a pile of other books on my nightstand that I'd so much rather be reading, like Girls of Riyadh,
Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing up Iranian in America and American in Iran, and The Bookseller of Kabul. (The last one won out, and now I'm in the thick of it -- I hate to put it down even to write).

Then, of course, I feel like I'm being a really bad sport here, favoring my own weird taste over other people's taste. Especially since I just got done asking the group to read The Flight of Peter Fromm, which many N.L. members found weird or annoying. Now I feel like (when it was my turn) I should have gone with my earlier idea of asking the group to read Contact, by Carl Sagan. I rejected that idea as "too obvious," but maybe I should occasionally go with the obvious choice.

Anyway, I gave it a (half-hearted) try. If many of the other Nonbelieving Literati like Remembering Hypatia, I'll try again and finish it...

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Primate Parenting

Way back when people used to recommend formula-feeding (over breastfeeding), isolating babies in their own rooms to sleep, and putting mothers under general anesthesia for a birth, I imagine the idea was to make the whole procedure more clinical, hence more scientific. Now all of the sciency-types are looking to hunter-gatherer societies and even other primates to get ideas for the best ways of raising human babies.

Personally, I just got done reading Parenting for Primates, by Harriet J. Smith (primatologist and psychologist), and wrote up my reactons in a little article here for Rational Moms.

The picture above is one I found while looking through old photos to find one of me with baby Léo strapped on in a baby pouch. That's Léo and his daddy. (Dang, babies are cute, aren't they?)

Then, to make up for the fact that every time I talk about primates I end up just talking about humans, I'll add that I've also recently read Among Orangutans by Carel Van Schaik -- a researcher at the university right here in Zurich!

This is a gorgeous book filled with stunning photos (by Perry Van Duijnhoven) of orangutans in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra.

Just because this looks like a coffee-table book doesn't mean it's a lightweight, though. This book outlines the latest information about orangutans, including some surprises like the fact that (when the environment is favorable) orangutans are far more social and less solitary than previously thought. Also, the author uses the orangutan example to outline a theory about ape intelligence. Primatologists commonly talk about the importance of abstract thinking for improving one's social rank (the machiavellian theory of intelligence). Carel Van Schaik proposes a related (but slightly different) idea that abstract thinking is critical for (cultural) learning about where and when to find food and how to get it.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Blogging Meme!!!

Lynet has tagged me for the Five ways blogging changed my life meme. I've taken my sweet time answering this one because the change has been so dramatic that I hardly know where to begin. But I'll take a stab at it:

1. New Skillz: 1.(a) Writing, obviously. Regular writing exercise for a few years is bound to have an effect.

1.(b) The new skills that surprised me most, though, are the social skills I've developed. I've always liked parties (and especially holding dinner parties for friends), but aside from isolated social events I'd always though of myself as a shy, aloof, anti-social, introverted person. The kind of person who doesn't make friends quickly or easily.

Now, through blogging, I feel like I know everybody. I have gotten to know an astonishing number of fascinating people around the globe through their blogs, through their books and manuscripts I've read, and through email and chat conversations. I've even had the fun of meeting a few of my blog friends in person, and I hope to meet more. It's amazing!!! And I never would have guessed or predicted this would happen.

2. It eats all of my free time: I'm starting to think that blogging is a form of O.C.D.

2.(a) I get up at 6 a.m. every morning so that I can have time to check my stats and reply to comments before work. I'm proud to report that my hit counter has recently passed 500,000 hits, half-a-million. (Note that that doesn't include hits on my articles on other blogs, but I am including every click on every page of Exmormon. I figure that if after reading one page the reader liked it well enough to click to the next page, that should count for something, at least in my own personal accounting. :D )

2.(b) Even though I I only post a few times a week, I still spend all my free time on it. When I'm commuting on the train or just walking around town, I'm generally composing blog entries in my head. Or reading a book (which I will no doubt review on my blog). Or reading a fellow blogger's book or manuscript and contemplating it (which I may or may not blog about, depending on the author's preference). Then, to relax when I get home from work, I grab a beer and skim the hundred or so new blog entries that have shown up in my google reader since the day before, selecting a few of them to read carefully and reply to.

Actually, even before blogging came along, I used to analyze different subjects and ideas obsessively and compose elaborate essays in my head. But I never used to bother to write them down because who's going to read them? I'm glad that blogging has given me the motivation to write.

2.(c) Naturally, the things I used to do with my free time, I don't do them anymore. I would be spending an hour or so a day on German verb drills, but that's an hour or so that I just don't want to cut out of my blogging time. Also, I'm less ambitious at work these days: to be the star requires a certain amount of thinking about problems from work on your own time at home, and I just don't care enough anymore to think about work anytime except when I'm physically there. Also, there are fun arts-n-crafts things I'd like to be doing with my kids (like making up puppet shows like my mom did with me as a kid). I haven't done as well on that as I'd like to, but I'm planning to make an effort to do better.

I probably shouldn't be posting all this since now everyone will think I'm insane. Next thing I know, people will come and stage an intervention. ;^)

Then -- by coincidence -- UneFemmePlusCourageuse tagged me for the Where would your eight homes be? meme. I imagine the idea is to tell you where my eight fantasy homes would be -- if I were to stop wasting all my time blogging and make some money instead. ;^)

1. Paris, France. I know it's cliché, but it's a really pleasant city, and incredibly convenient for visiting friends. It's so central for train and plane travel (and tourism in general), that it's easy to get people to visit if you have an apartment in Paris to invite them to.

2. New York, NY, U.S.A. Same reason.

3. Bordeaux, France. This was the one place in the world where I most felt at home, and (after seven years there) I was sorry to leave.

4. Zurich, Switzerland. My job is here, and so is my husband's, so it's rather convenient to have a home here. Also, it's an incredibly beautiful city and a nice place to live.

5. Minneapolis, MN, U.S.A. That way I could see my family all the time, and my kids could see their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Then those guys could organize all the arts-n-crafts and puppet shows for the kids, etc., and I could stop feeling guilty about it. ;^)

6. Provo, UT, U.S.A. Haha! Just kidding!!! :D

After that, I'd just like to tour the world -- not necessarily settle anywhere else. I'd like to visit India and other parts of Asia, Africa, various islands, more of Europe, and everywhere else! We'll see how much of that actually ever happens.

I don't feel like tagging anyone in particular today, but if either of these memes interests you, please go with it!!! And if you do the first one, don't forget to link back to the originator of the meme.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

New Carnivals!!!

this time I've gone nuts with the carnival circuit, participating in three carnivals I've never been in before!!!

For the first time, I've gotten a post into the highly selective last-one-before the election edition of the Carnival of the Liberals!!! Then, while I was at it, I decided to submit a post to the Carnival of the Elitist Bastards -- the classical poetry edition!!! Plus, one of my posts on Rational Moms has been included in the brand-spanking-new carnival Skeptical Parent Crossing!!!

Then, don't forget this is the week of The Humanist Symposium!!! I think it's also the week of the Carnival of the Godless, but unfortunately the "BlogCarnival" service is down, so I can't find it. I'll add the link as soon as I can...

All of these carnivals are chock-full of some of the best stuff in blogspace from the past fortnight or so, so if you're looking for some interesting new stuff to add to your usual blog reading fun, please go have a look!!! :D

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Novella wrap-up!

If you've been following this blog, you probably already know that I just finished serializing the five-chapter novella Temple Wedding last week. And if you're not among the four hundred people who've now read it, it's never too late!! :D

As I've said, this piece is a short comic drama about what it's like for young adult non-believers to go back and visit the whole extended clan on the occasion of a (religious) wedding in the family. This segment (and my whole novel Exmormon) are part of what I hope will be a growing genre: atheist/humanist literature. Non-believers are people too, and we have stories to tell!! Some of our stories deal with religion, some don't, but why not see some more atheist protagonists?

As a note to other writers out there: I like to work with other writers. I don't see them as the competition, I see them as part of the team. Anyone else out there who has written a novel (or novella or short story) and is interested in getting feedback on a manuscript or swapping tips and ideas, feel free to email me: chanson dot exmormon at gmail dot com. My areas of specialization are atheist/humanist lit and Mormon Lit (including stuff written by believers -- faithful Mormons, I'd be happy to give you a friendly and constructive "non-believer's perspective" on your story).

Also, remember that my publicity budget for Exmormon is exactly $0, and I don't have any kind of publicist helping me -- I've built up a non-trivial audience merely through my own antics on the Internet and through the book speaking for itself. And when I say "the book speaking for itself," I mean word-of-mouth. If you're reading this book and like it, any mention of it will be heartily appreciated. :D

Next up Orem High! This is one of the longest and most potentially controversial segments. I've got a lot of work left to do on the illustrations -- the one you see on the first page is the only one I've done so far, which means I have about fourteen more to draw. And since I'm no Quick Draw McGraw, that should take me until February 10, 2009.

I hope you'll all be joining me then!!! :D

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Be the good guys

I hardly know where to begin with the "Bush Doctrine." It should be obvious that you can't just decide to invade and attack any country that you (unilaterally) decide is a threat to you. At least not if you want to be seen as a peaceful, friendly nation as opposed to being a dangerous rogue state.

I think the obstacle for Americans in understanding this is a failure to see what it looks like from an outside perspective. "America is the good guys; America is a democracy whose actions I can vote for; America will ultimately be acting in my interests as an American; therefore America can be trusted to use this power wisely." I think that about sums up the reasoning for why it's okay. Now (if you're an American), I'd like you to try a little thought experiment of imagining that you're not an American, you can't vote in the U.S. election, and you have no reason to believe that your interests or perspective will be taken into account the next time the "America First" party decides who to bomb.

Obviously the Bush Doctrine relies on having one set of rules for the U.S. and a completely different set of rules for every other country. If every country were allowed to attack any other country that threatens their security, then Iran would be justified in attacking the U.S. already, and that would be just the beginning of the free-for-all of international destruction.

Now I know that some people will immediately dismiss me as a cowardly European, relying on the safety provided by the U.S. military without showing any gratitude and yadda yadda yadda. So let me explain myself a bit:

I'm an American, born and bred. I'm not motivated by hatred for America. I want to be proud of my homeland. I want my homeland to be the good guys. If America has chosen to be "the world's policeman" so be it, but launching unprovoked attacks on other nations, capturing foreign nationals and holding them without trial and torturing them -- these are not the actions of "the friendly cop on the beat." In order to find terrorists worldwide, in order to find and neutralize dangerous weapons that are floating around the world black market, in short to "win the war on terror" it is critical to have the trust and cooperation of lawful people worldwide. Thanks to the Bush Doctrine, lawful people worldwide are terrified of the U.S., and with good reason.

It's hard to exaggerate how sudden and dramatic the shift in world opinion has been. In talking with colleagues from all over Europe, those who have visited the U.S. universally speak of their experiences fondly, and they express surprise that I would choose to live in Europe instead. They also express shock and bewilderment at the current American foreign policy. These are people who would like nothing more than to view the current dismal failure as a fluke. It wouldn't be too difficult to regain their trust and affection if the American people were to stand up and demand a foreign policy that is more constructive, cooperative, and fair.

It's time to stop imagining that "American interests" is just another way of saying "goodness and virtue" and to stop assuming that foreigners don't deserve the same standards of fairness and justice. Remember that to people in other countries you are a foreigner. Trust and esteem aren't earned merely by having the name "America," they come from being fair and trustworthy. These things are earned, with effort. Let's make that effort.

Let's be the good guys.

Friday, October 17, 2008

I have totally already voted!

I don't know what's holding up you slackers, but my (absentee) ballot is already in the mail.

My neighborhood "get out the vote" efforts weren't too impressive though. I have only one American colleague, and he spontaneously reminded me weeks ago to register and vote. So he gets to count me towards his "get out the vote" efforts, and I don't get to count anyone...

Oh well, I hope the rest of you guys do better. ;^)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Nacho Nanny Rolls!!!

I was just playing with this silly anagram server, and that was the best one it came up with for my blog-name "Carol Lynn Hanson" (which is not exactly the same as my real name, as I explained here).

The anagram site claims "All the life's wisdom can be found in anagrams. Anagrams never lie," but I'm a little skeptical. I think they're trying to sell me something...

Of course it also came up with "Cannons All Horny."

Not too bad. It's probably wise, profound, and true if only I can figure out the correct interpretation. ;^)

Monday, October 13, 2008

You can't choose your family

On Sunday morning, Rex and I went out to brunch with those people who weren't going to church. Mom and Richard had been planning to visit the various local Christian churches that had LDS outreach ministries, but at the last minute the adorable baby motivated them to change their plans and have brunch with us instead.

As soon as we got to our table, Mom started installing baby Judy in her high chair. Mom had even brought some puppets and started playing with Judy and making her laugh. Susan seemed a tiny bit wary at first, but in short order she seemed to pick up on the fact that Mom was motivated by genuine affection and not proselyting.

"It's so wonderful to finally have a grandchild," she sighed. Then to Susan she said "I mean, I hope you don't mind if I think of Judy as my granddaughter." Read the rest of the story ->

Carnival Mania II!!!

Interestingly, my earlier installment of Carnival Mania has recently gotten a huge spike in search query hits. It's almost as though there's something else out there called "Carnival Mania" and Google is foolishly redirecting people to me! Oh, well. If you're looking for some sort of Carnival Mania other than my personal list of cool carnivals, then you've come to the wrong place...

First up The Humanist Symposium!!! This is a fun one, and I particularly liked John Remy's contribution A Personal History of Profanity. He talks about the typical Mormon belief that "A speaker who mouths profanity or vulgarity to punctuate or emphasize speech confesses inadequacy in his or her own language skills." I was taught that one, too, and refuted it way back here:

I live by all sorts of controversial theories of language. For one thing, I disagree with the theory that the use of profanity indicates that the speaker necessarily has a small vocabulary. The latent mathematician in me can't keep from pointing out that actively avoiding profanity technically makes your vocabulary smaller, not bigger. Sure it's easy to over-use naughty words, but if you know how to use them well, you can achieve certain effects that you can't create without them.

In other carnivals, there have bee two fab installments of the Carnival of the Godless since I last linked those guys here and here, and don't forget the not-at-all-concisely-named Feminist Carnival of Sexual Freedom and Autonomy #10!!!

Then there's a cool new carnival coming up for skeptical parents: Skeptical Parent Crossing!!! This one hasn't even had its first installment yet, but if you want to be in on it, submit your articles here.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Kids' Biology and Astronomy

A typical conversation from this morning at our house:

Nico: Mom, something tells me that animals didn't have their names without humans.
Me: [laughing] That's very true. How did you know that?
Nico: Because he says in "The Living Planet" that some species haven't even been named...

We've lately started branching out from biology to Astronomy though. Please see my new post at Rational Moms about it!

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Merit, Elitism, and Crab-Bucket Feminism

Finally, an article that hits on what I wanted to say about the charge of elitism in the current presidential race: The Dumbing Down of the GOP (hat tip Holly).

Didn't the GOP used to claim that (in theory) they're the ones that care about merit, and about earning what you get?

I think one part of the GOP's political game of picking Sarah Palin was to scare Democrats into crying "Experience matters!" so that the GOP can respond by saying "Then pick McCain!" But the thing is that -- between Obama and Palin -- it's more than just a question of who has the most experience.

Barack Obama is a skilled negotiator and a highly intelligent person. He's the sort of person who can step back and observe how things work, can come up with new and insightful analysis of problems and their solutions, and write write a couple of (very accessible) books explaining his ideas. Sarah Palin is the sort of person who can be trained to recite talking points (whether they're relevant or not, without grasping the underlying concepts), which is a great skill for a T.V.-soundbyte-oriented election, but not so useful in a president. (Note: I know it's McSame who's a the top of the ticket, but Palin is running for Prez too as long as she's the understudy to Mr. One-Foot-in-the-Grave.)

Yet, if I point this out, I'll be blasted as an "elitist." Because not every Tom, Dick, and Harry can be smart like Barack Obama.

But haven't we had enough "Hey, I'm as dumb as you!" populism?

Obama has leadership skills and talent, and it shouldn't be "elitist" to suggest that such things are necessary to be an effective president. You're not paying Joe and Jane Average a compliment by saying that they can't deal with voting for someone who has relevant leadership/diplomatic skills that the average person doesn't have. Joe and Jane Average may not have exactly the same skill set as Obama, but they're capable of being qualified for their own jobs, and if they're proud of that, then they should expect no less from the President.

Now let's take another look at merit (or lack thereof) from Feministing (hat tip MoF):

For many Boomer women, the primary sexist experience of their lives is: "Those men gave the job to that guy instead of me, even though I am more qualified and/or have more seniority."

For many Gen X women like myself (and Palin is Gen X) the primary sexist experience is: "Those men gave the job to that clueless chick instead of me, because the boss thinks she's hot and/or will be a yes-man with no ideas of her own."

If, for some Boomer women, Obama's win over Hillary represents the guy they lost the promotion to, Palin's selection plays the same role for Gen X women. We've seen it: first the incompetent yet babelicious woman is promoted over her head, then the boss orders the attention of the entire team/department/etc. to focus on ensuring that "we" shield her from "mistakes" (or worse, we get blamed for her mistakes). Palin reminds us of when we got screwed by this sort of bullshit. And it shows in voters' response to her.

Really...? That's Gen-X's primary experience with sexism? Having to put up with a bimbo at work?

Not, say... getting viewed (and dismissed) by your colleagues who decide that you must be unqualified, incompetent eye-candy? Including (supposedly) "feminist" colleagues?!

Now, I don't want to be too hard on the authors of Feministing (since they got this quote from another blog, hence may not agree with it). I don't agree with it. I'm sorely tempted to go over there and post the following comment:

I totally agree with you about having to cover for all the incompetent bimbos at work that the boss just hires to flirt with him. Sadly, these bimbos keep getting promoted over real, qualified working men like me and my buddies. I've seen it over and over. Women use their sex appeal all the time to get unfairly promoted in jobs where women are just naturally less qualified.

I would love to watch the sh*tstorm that would rain down on me if I wrote that. (I can't, of course, since I'm not a guy.)

Yet, somehow it's "feminist" for a woman to say the same thing: to promote the stereotype of the incompetent bimbo who's had an unfair advantage at work. That's what you're saying when you say it's a typical gen-X woman's "primary sexist experience": having to deal with incompetent bimbos must be a pretty widespread problem!

As opposed to, say, having to deal with the incompetent guy who gets an unending string of unfair advantages, screws things up for his colleagues, and gets repeatedly protected and shielded from the consequences of his mistakes, because of being an admiral's son (hat tip Pz), or for having other connections. I guess rich white guys getting this kind of treatment is par for the course -- not worthy of the same scorn.

"The unqualified person got hired over me because of some unfair advantage!" Yep, it's something that really does (objectively) happen. Yet, too often this interpretation is in the eye of the beholder. Whenever you don't get something you believe you deserve, that's the first knee-jerk interpretation. As feminists, we shouldn't be encouraging women to seek out "blame the bimbo" as some sort of typically feminist interpretation to look around for as soon as things go awry. Everybody who is competing against an attractive woman at work (men and women alike) are vigilantly on the lookout for any unfair advantage she gets and will hate her for it, and she typically gets her punishment soon enough without "feminists" deciding that it's a major feminist issue to bash her and bring her down. (Keep in mind that an affair with the boss is far more likely to get a woman fired than promoted, despite the "sleeping your way to the top" stereotype.)

I agree with Feministing that this is a generational thing though. Think of the film Nine to Five. Remember how the other women stood in solidarity with the (unfairly advantaged and unfairly mistreated) babe? Instead of thinking it's their feminist duty to bash her? Those were the days. Nowadays "crab-bucket Feminism" (feminists bolstering their own position by pulling other women down) is the rule, not the exception (thanks MoJo for the term).

Feminists have learned (correctly) that women shouldn't be expected to be beautiful to be considered valuable and successful. But unfortunately many feminists have taken this a step further to the point where it's considered "feminist" to promote the prejudice that a woman who is beautiful or sexy is probably a brainwashed, exploited airhead. Now what about the woman who earned her position through merit yet all of her colleagues (male and female) keep assuming she must be just eye candy? Who should she turn to for help? Clearly not the current generation of "feminists"...

About Sarah Palin?

Yep, she's a beauty pageant winner, and that's a big part of why she's on the ticket. Like Dan Quayle who got unfairly promoted because of his looks and McCain and G.W.B. who got unfair advantages through family connections. Let's insist on merit and qualfication all around for both men and women in all lines of work.

But, feminists, let's not jump up and grab this as a golden opportunity to bolster the standard prejudices against women in the workplace. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and your own colleagues may wrongly be making these same assumptions about you.

Monday, October 06, 2008

The people who weren't allowed to attend the ceremony in the temple

On the morning of the wedding, we determined to sleep in a little bit. We were planning to meet April and Susan at the Hobbs' house, and we wanted to wait until we were sure that Brother and Sister Hobbs were gone to avoid crossing them and dealing with whatever wrath was the consequence of Rex's mother's visit the night before.

I had put on a church-style dress for the day, which wasn't my favorite thing to do, but I was willing to make a sacrifice for a special occasion.

At Matt's parents' house, we found the people who were not allowed to attend the wedding in the temple: April and Susan and Judy, my mom and her new husband Richard, and everyone who was too young to go to the temple, including Sam and Joe, plus a bunch of my little cousins. Read the rest of the story ->

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Fellow Tribes?

To a Mormon (even a cultural Mormon), the parallels between the Mormons and the Jews are totally obvious. To a Jew? Not so obvious.

It hit me the other day that perhaps it might be amusing for Jewish people to hear about the Mormons' affinity for them, and ask them what they think of it.

To that end, the kind folks at Lubab No More have allowed me to write them a guest post My Tribe.

Have a look, and see what you think! :D

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Rational Moms!!!

I've just joined a brand-new group blog called Rational Moms!!!

This new blog is all about skeptical parenting -- a subject you know I like to talk about (see my parenting posts). But I'd kind of been talking about it in my own little corner of cyberspace even though I know there's tons of great discussion out there I could be joining in. Naturally, I was thrilled when I heard about this new group blog starting up, and doubly thrilled when I was chosen as a contributer! :D

Please have a look and read my first post Aaaah… Turn green! in which I talk about teaching Nico and Leo a fun little magic trick. Then stick around and read some of the other stories and discussions posted by other rational moms!!! :D

Monday, September 29, 2008

A Question of Perspective

When we got to Rex's parents' house, the three boys immediately rushed upstairs to put their backpacks in Jared's room. Rex's mother met us in the entryway and took my jacket. "Hello, Lynn," she said, "It's nice to see you again." Then she yelled up the staircase, "You boys come back down here. What is the meaning of rushing off like that without even saying hello? So anxious to get to your video games that you can't even be polite to an old lady?"

The boys came back downstairs. "Sorry Mom," said Jared. "These are some guys I know from school, Sam and Joe." Read the rest of the story ->

Guest Posts!

I've just put up a couple of fun guest posts on two of the other blogs I write for:

Estimating the cost of bad investments, or how much did the Church lose on you? is a fun little piece for exmo BYU grads reprinted (with permission) from the Student Review alums mailing list.

Elder Norton’s Most Embarrassing moment… is a story about being young and horny, reprinted (with permission) from exmo-social.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Jane Goodall: human, primatitarian

Jane Goodall is a remarkable individual, known not only for her ground-breaking scientific research but also for her service. I'd like to say "service to humanity" here, but in fact she goes a step further, helping not only her own species, but her order: the primates.

When it comes to habitat preservation, the chimpanzees' interests and the humans' long-term interests go hand-in-hand. The rainforests (which are being rapidly destroyed around the world) are critical for maintaining our planet's surface -- that thin, delicate layer we rely on for life -- in a human-habitable condition.

If you're asking "What about the interests of the people who live near the rainforest and would like to harvest its resources?" -- remember that the continued existence of the rainforest is in their long-term interest as well, for themselves and their descendants. But when you're faced with a choice between "food today" and "no food today," it's hard to put future generations' interests first. That's one of the reasons why the Jane Goodall Institute's mission involves ecology as a sustainable source of livelihood for the local human population (see here). (The same is true of many other rainforest-preservation organizations, such as our local favorite, aiding the Masoala National Park in Madagascar in conjunction with the Zoo of Zurich.)

I know that rainforest preservation gets painted as some sort of out-of-touch, elitist cause (especially with the U.S. economy exploding lately). But the thing is that once a section of rainforest is destroyed, the tremendous biodiversity needed to sustain that ecosystem -- thousands (millions?) of species that haven't even been discovered and named -- isn't going to just grow back within the span of a few human generations. And what if humans discover that, in fact, we needed that giant green lung in order for our species to survive? And what if we discover this after it's too late? There are rainforests now, but we won't have them for long unless we do something. The Jane Goodall Institute is a good place to start.

But that isn't what sparked my interest in Jane Goodall and her work. Her books on chimpanzees were the first primatology books I'd ever read, put into my hands by a boyfriend during my BYU days. And I've just read a fascinating recent biography by Meg Greene that brings to life the story behind Goodall's chimpanzee stories, from Jane's childhood dreams, to finding a way to fulfill them against all odds, to her astonishing research and discoveries (chimpanzee tool-use, warfare, etc.) that have changed the way we think about apes, including humans.

Early in the story, Meg Greene points out that Jane Goodall wasn't just an ordinary-type scientist. She was a woman scientist:

But through her work, Goodall brought a woman's touch, one that emphasized relationships rather than rules, to be receptive rather than controlling, to be empathetic instead of objective. Her approach flew in the face of conventional science, a science defined by male views and values.

Interesting point, I thought, reading that in the introduction. I hadn't really thought of relationships as being at odds with rules or objectivity as being a "male" view or value...

So I read the entire book with an eye out for Greene's claim that Goodall's femaleness was crucial to her research. The evidence Greene presents for this hypothesis is the fact that Goodall named her subjects and wrote down what she observed them doing (instead of performing controlled experiments on them).

My counterargument?

As Greene herself points out, Goodall didn't invent the idea of doing scientific research through field observations. This had been the standard technique for all naturalists (including male ones), and had merely fallen out of favor around Goodall's time. And -- through this book -- we learn that Goodall had a number of other qualities that were also crucial to the success of her work: ambition, tenacity (finding every possible opportunity and refusing to give up in the face of major setbacks), courage (to follow chimpanzees alone in the wild when she was well aware that they might easily choose to kill her), stamina (to continue to do research even when she had malaria so bad she could barely get out of bed), self-confidence (to know she was right despite ridicule from much of the scientific community), not to mention intelligence and a talent for observation.

How many of these qualities are "female"? How many are generic human qualities? But when you're a minority -- as women are in science -- you're always viewed through the lens of your minority status. (Now I'm starting to wonder how empathy helped Madame Curie understand radioactive elements...)

Anyway, all in all, Jane Goodall is one truly astounding female primate! :D