Sunday, June 28, 2009

on vacation with more than I can chew...

I've been looking forward to this vacation all year -- two months with my family in Minnesota! Unfortunately, that means that everything I didn't have time to do this past year, I just put it on my "I'll do it on my vacation..." list. Then I cleverly signed on for a professional/research project that looks like it's going to be as much work as being in a start-up again. (Remember when I was so busy with work that I had to have Nico blog for me? That's about where I'm at now.)

Anyway, I'll give you the run-down on my plans in hopes that I'll have the opportunity of meeting some of my blogging friends during my stay in the U.S.:

First off, I'm spending July and August in the suburbs of Minneapolis. (Naturally, I'm hoping to see the Minnesota Atheists again.) Also, in late August, I'll be in Utah for the Sunstone Symposium, and I hope to meet some of you there! Then, for September, October, November, and December we'll be in New Jersey. After that, it's back to Switzerland.

I know, with a six-month stay in the U.S., I really ought to update the masthead of my blog. It's getting to be about time, that's for sure! Well, I'll put it on my to-do list. Somewhere.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Blogspace slowing down? Say it ain't so!

At least it seems like blogspace isn't growing as rapidly as it used to. Mojoey notes that the atheist blogroll has been hovering around 900 for months; similarly Outer Blogness has had a population of around 200 for a while.

Here's TooManyTribbles' video of where the atheist blogroll was at two years ago:

It looks like blogging is still quite popular, and still growing in popularity -- just growing at a slower rate. My guess is that the people who thought blogging would make them rich-n-famous have given up, the people who were just in blogspace to share photos with family and friends have switched to FaceBook, and people who like to try the latest fad... well, I'm not in the loop as to what those guys are up to. The people who remain here in blogworld are the ones who just happen to like expressing themselves in this format.

Like me!!

I like socializing online (see my friend, the Internet), and I especially like having the motivation to write out my thoughts in coherent essays. It's fun to share ideas and discuss! :D

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Unrequited? Why the atheists love the gay more than vice-versa...

I've been thinking about this question ever since I read Greta Christina's post on being an atheist in the queer community. I don't mean this to be a question of blame -- quite the opposite. I'd kind of like to understand the situation better, in order to avoid unfair expectations.

Reason #1: taking back one's faith

I suspect that there's a higher proportion of atheism in the queer population than in the general population -- that is, gay people are more likely to be atheist than straight people. You're more likely to question (and then follow those questions all the way to atheism) if God-belief isn't working for you. And being repeatedly told that God thinks you're an abomination would be a pretty strong motivation to ask yourself, "Wait a minute -- Who is this God dude anyway?"

But, really, that's the only link with atheism for the gay folks, and not everyone who questions God's existence winds up disbelieving. Some gay people take great comfort in their faith and in their traditions, and would rather question the assumption that God doesn't love them the way they are. For such people, to embrace the atheists would be like granting that the homophobes are the true people of faith, and are the ones who are qualified to pronounce on what God likes and doesn't like (in particular, homosexuality). It's too much like saying, "OK, if God were to exist, then you're right, He would hate me," which a lot of gay people aren't ready to grant.

Reason #2: goal alignment

Even if the gay people's needs don't line up exactly with the atheists, the common goals in the opposite direction couldn't be more obvious. Here's a case of harmful (discriminatory) laws getting passed -- based solely on religious justification, with no objective reasoning to back them up. That is exactly the sort of thing that is of most concern to atheists as a group.

Reason #3: visibility

The GLBT community got out there and said "We're here! We're queer! Get used to it." So now the atheists (like everybody else) are used it. With a little more visibility, people will start to get used to the atheists as well. (Though we don't have a good rhyme... Any ideas?)

Reason #3: the popularity ladder

Gay people are currently more accepted by the general population. Sure, they're almost as despised as the atheists, but that little difference counts for quite a lot when you're near the bottom of the popularity ladder.

This isn't an atheist/gay thing -- it's human nature in general. You don't improve your popularity by hanging out with the folks who are even more nerdy than yourself, you improve your popularity by telling those above you on the social ladder that you're like them, and join them in looking down on someone else. I touched on the personal-life version of this in the novella Young Women's, but it's also standard fare within and among disadvantaged groups...

Other ideas?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Search query puzzlers!

I've been trying to restrain myself from doing too many search query posts ever since Felicia said it was a cliché. Admittedly, Andrew did one since then, helping to increase the coolness factor a little bit. But the trouble is that I've recently gotten a bunch of search queries that have stumped even me! So, I have no choice but to post them and see if any of you have any answers for these poor, unfortunate queriers:

Q: suicidal beached whales verses mass murderers
A: Sorry, what?? Are you asking which would win? Uh... both..?

Q: verb tenses had better make an effort
A: D'oh!! You found a verb construction I missed in my million English verb tenses and moods, illustrated dialog! And what the hell kind of construction is "had better" anyway?

Q: the name of an aspect of something used to refer to the whole thing, such as when alcohol is called the bottle
A: Man, I don't remember the word for that, either. I'm really on a roll here when it comes to High School English class. Now I know you guys are going to say "Wikipedia!" or "google it!" but what do I look it up under? If I type that description into google, it'll just land me back here, and you can see how much help that will be...

Q: do brilliant women have beautiful pussies and loving attitudes?
A: I dunno. Probably some do, but I haven't seen any studies on it or anything.

Q: lourdes - places to go besides church
A: lol, good luck! You can try playing the game of who can find the tackiest souvenir, but aside from that and church, there's not much else. Maybe consider a change of destination? Unless somebody here knows of something non-churchy in Lourdes...

Q: i love the fountain and i'm an atheist
A: See, this one I really don't get. What fountain? And what does it have to do with being an atheist?

Q: should a blogger post a personal picture of himself?
A: I say yes, but I know there's some disagreement on this one! :D

Q: what is better place to live in swiss or india
A: I've never lived in India, so I can't really judge. I could ask some of my colleagues who are from India. I mean, I could have if I hadn't quit my job the other day (in anticipation of temporarily moving back to the U.S.). Sorry!

Q: how can i know if the church is true mormon intellectual
A: Again, this one is a little tricky to parse, but I suppose the querier is looking for a proof that the LDS church is true, one that would convince a Mormon intellectual. Well, querier, you've come to the wrong place for that!

Q: why are mormons so into scrapbooking
A: Another philosophical question about Mormons! Mormons really like creative handicrafts, and scrapbooking is particularly fun for SAHMs because of the tie-in with family activities. That, and the fabulous possibilities for scrapbooking-supplies MLMs.

(Oops, I answered that last one myself. C'est la vie.)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

So what's going to happen in Iran?

Like everybody, I've been following these daily images from Tehran. (Well, like everybody who hasn't discovered Twitter yet.) I wonder what's going to happen.

From what I've read, I understand one of the main problems with the Islamic Republic is that a body of clerics has to approve every action the government makes. This body of clerics is not elected and not accountable to anyone. (Well, not accountable to anyone who exists at least.) So even if the elections were democratic, and even if a reformist candidate were to get elected, there's a limit to what he could accomplish. It's not clear that it's even possible for them to solve their problems working within the system.

I just hope things get better and not worse. I keep thinking of that line from Persepolis when (during the earlier revolution) the mom says, "Well, at least things can't be worse than they were under the Shah..."

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Bumblebees can't fly -- but they do!

Has anyone out there heard this urban legend? (I could swear I've heard it from multiple sources, but I can't find it on, so I'm beginning to doubt my memory.)

Apparently an engineer once performed a bunch of aerodynamics calculations on the weight, shape, and wingspan of the common bumblebee -- and proved that bumblebees can't fly! But they do fly, demonstrating conclusively that bumblebees know "the secret", or something like that...

This little gem has got to be one of the funniest examples of empiricism FAIL. Our knowledge of aerodynamics is ultimately based on observation and experience. So when your theoretical calculations contradict experimental evidence in an obvious and consistent way, then perhaps your first thought should be "Hmm, where did I go wrong in this calculation?" not "Eureka! I've proven magic!"

Now, it's very possible that bumblebees do fall outside the norm in terms of mass vs. wingspan. But then (by asking why? and how?) they should be taken as a golden opportunity to learn something new about flight. As Isaac Asimov famously said 'The most exciting phrase to hear in science -- the one that heralds new discoveries -- is not "Eureka!" (I found it!) but "that's funny..."'

Actually, that one really is on snopes. It turns out that it's not clear Asimov ever said that. But he should have! :D

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Out with the old...?

I could have sworn that during our year-and-a-half living in Zürich so far that we'd tried not to buy too much junk! Well, we didn't do such a fantastic job of it. I was just down in the basement assessing the tower of boxes of old toys (which trickled down there little by little to make way for new toys), and it looks like I've got some work ahead of me to prepare for our move.

I feel like some of this stuff doesn't deserve to be schlepped to our new apartment -- just to be stored in the basement there. Particularly our collection of duplo-Legos, now that we've graduated to the 6-to-adult-sized Legos. I wonder if there are any charities around here that accept used toys...

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Science on vacation!!!

Don't worry -- science itself never takes a vacation!

But if you're on the lookout for it, you can find science everywhere, even when you're on vacation, such as our recent trip to Lago Maggiore.

Look! Orange lichen!

Now, I know this is just basic naturalism (so perhaps doesn't really count as science...?), but we love to observe the wildlife wherever we go!

The lizards look a lot like the ones we observed in Lourdes!

My kids observed: "Now we know there are lizards in Italy, too."

We haven't seen any lizards in Switzerland yet, but we've seen something better: newts! I'd never seen newts in the wild before, but we've seen them plenty of times in the streams of Zürich. Maybe I'll post a picture sometime...

In the meantime, here's the obligatory tourist photo of the white peacocks of the Borromean Islands:

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Europride Zürich '09!!!

I've learned (just from my usual wandering about town) that Europe has a yearly Gay Pride festival called "EuroPride," and this year it was held in Zürich!!!

So -- since one of my roles in this blog is to bring Zürich to you -- Léo and I went down and took pictures of the parade:

Here, we're waiting for the parade to arrive. The sky looked a little menacing, but could be worse...

Léo (and the other kids in the audience) couldn't wait to get a balloon!

The sign reads "Pour la famille une seule orientation: l'amour !" (Only one orientation for the family: love!)

This was definitely a colorful parade!

With plenty of feathers...

... and flowers ...

... and bubbles ...

... and more feathers ...

... and more bubbles ...

Here you can see straight across to the grumpy spectators on the other side: "In my day, lesbians did not parade down the street in inner tubes..."

Local businesses got into the act,

as well as groups from other cities,

not to mention international organizations...

There were divas galore!

... exotic ...

... as well as traditional.

The gals seemed friendly, yet (on the whole),

not quite as theatrical as the guys...
(edit: now that I look at this photo more closely, I see two guys are texting people while parading. If that's not a comment on our modern lifestyle, I don't know what is...)

"Hmm, are we almost to the end of the parade route? Hope we won't be needing these rainbow umbrellas..."

We saw the entire parade in the sunshine, but, unfortunately, there was a torrential downpour shortly after it passed. I'm not sure the whole parade made it to the end without getting soaked...

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Scariest search query yet!

I often like to help people by answering the specific questions in the search queries that led them to my blog. Generally I give light-hearted, fun advice (see installments 1, 2, 2 1/2, and 3 1/2 of "Ask Chanson via Google"), but, just the other day, I got an incoming search query (landing here) from someone who could use some serious advice:

Q: if a woman accuses you of being a stalker how do you seek revenge

A: Dear querier, have you ever heard people say "living well is the best revenge"? Well, it's not just a cliché, it is absolutely true!

If you'd like to get revenge on this woman for accusing you of being a stalker, then just make her accusation look silly by proving her wrong. If you ask yourself "what would a stalker do?" you'll immediately see that you prove her wrong by not stalking her (eg. not seeking revenge). Instead, try leaving her the hell alone.

And I'm not just saying this for the sake/safety of the woman you're talking about. You personally will be happier if you drop it and move on to bigger and better things rather than obsessing over this failed relationship to the point where you do something stupid that you will regret for the rest of your life.

I know that it's hard to just forget about it and move on, but it's not impossible. I recommend starting with Finding Love 101. Good luck -- I'm sure you can do the right thing if you put your mind to it!

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The commies and me!

When I was in high school, I started to get the impression we weren't hearing the whole story about communism. It was the '80's, and we heard plenty of stories about people bravely escaping from the evil Soviet empire, and all about how their propaganda paper was named "Pravda" which -- ironically -- means truth! Yet, I wondered what this cold-war stand-off looked like to ordinary people on their side.

It wasn't until grad school, however, that I decided to investigate. Politically, I'd gladly sloughed off religious social conservatism when I stopped believing in Mormonism, but I figured that the jury was still out on Reaganite borrow-and-spend supply-side economics. Then I started listening to Rush Limbaugh and some other right-wing radio shows. It began when my then-husband found them entertaining. I found them entertaining too, at first. But they gradually convinced me that their convictions were based on bile, anger, and especially ignorance and stupidity.

(Yep, it's true! I used to be a regular listener of the Rush Limbaugh show, back in the early days before all the scandals broke about his drug use and about getting out of military service because of a boil on his butt. The experience basically inoculated me for life against having any kind of respect for the Republican Party.)

Since I was anti-impressed by the right, the next obvious stop was to see what the left had to say. I started with Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States -- an excellent book, and a fascinating look at a familiar story from an unfamiliar perspective! I was sold on it immediately. My next stop was to check out the campus Communist club.

I liked the campus Communists at first, and I participated in their club for a few months. Yet in the end they failed to convert me to Leninism. The key problem was the lack of new ideas and new analysis. Each group of ideologues seemed to have a favorite intellectual who has thought up some clever analysis fifty or a hundred years ago, but nobody seemed willing or able to evaluate and modify their theories based on observation of human society over the past half-century. The closest thing to modern analysis was when people would interpret current events in terms of their chosen beliefs, like holy writ.

Here's an example I found particularly frustrating: the fall of the Soviet Union. The right took it as complete vindication and proof that they're right, and my new Communist friends' position was no more nuanced. The Trotskyists took it as proof that Stalin had sold out the revolution, and the Stalinists took it as proof of the age-old claim that the revolution must be global otherwise the evil capitalists will destroy it. In short, nobody learned a damn thing.

For myself, I felt like it should have been possible to gather some data and do some socio-economic research about which things worked, which things didn't, and why. Take, for example, the idea of a centralized command economy, which I was reminded of when reading The Jungle recently:

Since the same kind of match would light everyone's fire, and the same shaped loaf of bread would fill everyone's stomach, it would be perfectly feasible to submit industry to the control of a majority vote. [...] As soon as the birth-agony was over, and the wounds of society had been healed, there would be established a simple system whereby each man was credited with his labor and debited with his purchases; and after that the process of production exchange, and consumption would go on automatically, and without our being conscious of them, any more than a man is conscious of his beating heart.

Okay, that was a clever and intriguing idea when The Jungle was published, back in 1906. But there's something wrong when people are still making this claim ninety years later, after some of the (rather obvious) flaws have become painfully apparent: production of all goods in a society requires far too much specific logistical management to submit every decision to popular referendum, and electing a committee to run not only the legal system but the entire economy means concentrating too much power in too few hands.

On the other hand, it's equally simplistic and stupid to imagine that -- just because the above doesn't work -- that proves that private interests are the most efficient providers of every type of goods and services a society needs. If you open your eyes and look at the evidence around you, you'll see that the private sector and the public sector each have their strengths and their weaknesses. It's not a question of choosing which one is "right" and which one is "wrong" -- it's a question of optimizing your strategy by using the best of both. There may even be other ways we haven't even thought of yet for organizing labor and capital to produce goods and services! With the rate that society and technology are changing, why assume the possibilities from a century ago are the only possibilities available to us today?

In retrospect, of course, I can see that it was unfair of me to expect this level of analysis from the campus Communist club. Clearly, what I was looking for was the Economics Department.

I had a few other, more legitimate problems with the club, however:

First of all, they were always on about the working class and labor unions, but -- as far as I could tell -- they didn't know anyone who was blue-collar and/or in a labor union, and didn't have any interest in meeting any. (I was actually one up on them since I was dating a bus driver, who, in fact, took me to see an actual Communist Party parade in Paris. That was a fascinating cultural experience! Unfortunately, the relationship didn't end very well.)

On top of that, all of their activities were focused on proselytizing and fund-raising (in preparation for "the revolution"). I wanted to do something that was a little closer to reality, so I helped organize an anti-war protest with them. (I talked about this in my Confessions of a former Nader voter posts.) To put it mildly, that demonstration didn't go quite the way I'd hoped. We gathered up all of the different Communist, Anarchist, Quaker, and other radical organizations in the area, and, let's just say, some of them were pretty weird (not the Quakers, BTW).

The worst part was when one person stood up to speak at the rally and gave a speech in support of Saddam Hussein. The second-worst part was visiting another local Communist club and noting that on their literature table they had a book called Rethinking Stalin. I know, there have been other leaders who have "cracked a few eggs to make an omelet" and are remembered as heroes anyway (see: The Bible), and yet I'm still not in favor of "rethinking Stalin." And the third worst part was when someone from one of the smaller radical groups stood up at the rally to denounce the goals of the rally. I met Stalinists, Trotskyists, Maoists, and others I couldn't identify, and boy-oh-boy did these guys hate each other worse than they hated any capitalist! If you've seen the "People's Front of Judea" scene from The Life of Brian, you might think it's an over-the-top exaggeration.

It's not.

And so ended my adventures with Communism.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Most Ironic Eco-Food!

As you may recall, I've been thinking about trying to be more eco-friendly by buying locally-grown foods. Y'know, if only somebody out there in cyberspace would create the tools to make it easy and fun for me to do it. ;^)

So, I'm trying to figure out what to think of this new fruit drink I've found: Amazônia. According to the packaging, it helps preserve the tropical rain forest because the fruit is cultivated in a sustainable way, and the production follows international (independently verified) standards of fair trade. And then the fruit juice is shipped around the world from Brazil to Switzerland and sold in little disposable-cardboard cans.

What do you think? Eco or not?

It's pretty tasty...