Sunday, December 28, 2014

State of the Me 2014-2015

I've been writing these yearly posts for a while now, and I'd like to believe I'm getting closer to achieving my goals. Since this sort of assessment can help shape my reality as well as describe it, I'll keep the spin positive. ;)

This year's overview is that I've made decent progress, but I'm perhaps farther from my goals than ever -- due to moving the goal posts. So let's dive into the status on my usual long-term goals, and wrap up with my new ones!


This was my biggest goal category from last year, -- a very important part of life to focus on, and one where I feel like I've done well over the past year.

I am very lucky to have an apartment that is so perfectly suited to guests. We have a nice guest room, plus we have extremely convenient access to downtown Zürich as well as to beautiful forests for hiking. We've had some wonderful visits from family, and hope to welcome many more friends and family in 2015 and beyond. With those who haven't had the opportunity to visit, I've had some great skype visits. And I've had lots of awesome parties and outings with local friends!!

I've also made some great new friendships in addition to building up the old/gold ones. I even feel like my relationship with my husband has been warmer and more fun. (Not that it was ever bad, but when you see someone every single day it's easy to become apathetic.)


This has been the biggest, most stressful goal category of 2014. The kids are doing OK in school, but not nearly as well as they should be. We've made some progress getting them to do as much of their homework as possible on time, but they're nowhere near being self-motivating about it -- and they waste their energy on fighting us to get to do the bare minimum and call it "good enough." I really want them to learn that it is easier for everyone in the long run if they'd just expend that same effort getting it done.

The kids have done some programming and other tech projects (some great ones were thanks to my dad during his recent visit), plus we had a bit of Math/Science fun at Camp Quest, but I would like to have done more. I'm hoping to re-launch my Math Club at the beginning of the 2015 school year, but I'd like to feel like we've gotten them out of the woods with respect to grades before focusing on that.

The kids have come up with a few independent projects on their own (such as Nico's new YouTube channel), yet I somehow feel like they're not very ambitious. OTOH (spinning this positive), maybe it's just that they're not insecure. They enjoy playing together for hours on end, inventing elaborate stories and dramas together (which is part of why it's so annoying that getting them to write a 200-word essay for school is like pulling teeth, grr). My two kids get along great and hardly ever fight with each other.

Work + Languages

My German is increasingly fluent, and I've been speaking more German at work, even for technical discussions, instead of always pulling the discussion back to English. We got a new colleague from Germany, so now my two closest colleagues are German. This is cool because when they discuss our projects among themselves, there's no temptation for them to slip into the Swiss German dialect (which I wouldn't understand), and I can join in the discussion in German.

As far as the work itself is concerned, I've done lots of interesting projects this year, including some where I've taken the initiative to suggest a project that needed to get done and that I could do. My biggest problem is probably the fact that I have so many non-work-related projects that I'm excited about, so it's sometimes a challenge to stay enthusiastic and motivated. Perhaps I should put that on my goal list for 2015. ;)

Between friends and my husband's colleagues and trips (not to mention at home), I have had quite a lot of opportunity to keep up my French, despite how little French is spoken in Zürich. I'm happy that I've had the opportunity to take a French-language yoga course for the past four years and counting -- I think it had been great for my physical and mental health (in addition to multi-tasking as French conversation practice with the other students before and after class). My German class is almost like multi-tasking as well since I like my German teacher -- my weekly skype lesson with her doubles as chatting about my life with a friend.

New Stuff!

My biggest new goal that I came up with in 2014 is that I would like to produce a comic book / graphic novel. I've always wanted to do it -- comic books (especially ones that are (semi)autobiographical and/or take place in unfamiliar cultures) are my favorite genre of books to read for pleasure.

Over the Summer I came up with a story idea but despaired of being able to produce it (because I don't draw that well, as you can see from my online novel). But then I thought "you know, it's not rocket science." I have all of these ideas and pictures in my mind of imaginary people and places I would love to draw -- and the distance in technical skill between where I am/was at and where I need to be to draw what I want to draw isn't insurmountable.

So, I've been spending my tram commute copying photos from the free newspapers in order to improve my skills at drawing people in natural postures and positions. And I've improved a lot in just this short amount of time.

I got a (computer) drawing tablet for my birthday, and I've been drawing all of my characters' faces from various angles in svg (scalable vector graphics). I am almost done with my initial drafts of my characters faces, then I will move on to making a series of hands and feet, and then I will try my hand at a group portrait. Then comes the architecture (which I've also been practicing and coming up with ideas for).

Just yesterday we took a family trip to Neuchâtel (to see the new Asterix film in French), and of course we took time to visit the bookshop. I didn't find any comic books I really wanted this time, but... I found I was a little disconcerted by how good the artwork was in all of these random comics I've never heard of. I don't mean the photo-realism, but rather things like the techniques for making simple backgrounds interesting, and the use of stylized eyes on otherwise realistic people, etc.

But, now to spin this positive. I have been collecting and poring over comic books for years, of various styles, and I've always appreciated and analyzed the ideas for how the drawings are composed. And after making a real effort to try my hand at doing it, I'm noticing even more details and techniques than before -- which is a key part of improving my own hand. None of these other artists created their work utterly ex nihilo out of their own heads. Like me, they loved and appreciated the works of others, and felt inspired and came up with their own ideas as well.

My other new goal is more a fantasy than a goal, but I'll throw it out there since it's something I've fantasized about doing this past year. I'd like to incorporate my three websites as a non-profit organization, and (through ads or something) pay some people to work part time as editors and publicists to help authors of LDS-interest works -- plus pay people to write good articles for MSP (to keep good, regular content there, to increase readership, to help monetize the site to pay for the editor/publicists). Maybe even turn MAA Books into an indie publisher.

The reason this is a fantasy is because in order to make it work, I'd basically have to work full time on it, and I'd have to pour a bunch of my own cash into the project, which would require me to increase my hours at my day job to full-time. Perhaps you can see the problem with this. I figured I'd mention it, though, just in case a giant cache of money magically descends upon me -- or if someone else out there has a similar dream and wants to discuss joining forces.

So that's about it for this past year. Please wish me luck for 2015. Good luck on your own dreams and goals!! :D

Sunday, November 30, 2014

What I love (and don't love) about the Lego Movie!

If you've followed the Legos tag on my blog, you can probably guess that I approached this film biased towards wanting to like it. So you can take that as your grain of salt when I tell you that I found this film loads of fun -- and I felt that its clever and imaginative aspects were original enough outweigh the flaws.

The big item The Lego Movie got right was exactly the point the Lego Universe role-playing video game got wrong, as I explained a couple of years ago on one of my other blogs. "Lego Universe" (the game) was basically a generic adventure video game in which the characters and backgrounds happened to be made out of Legos -- but it totally ignored what makes Legos so addicting. You want to buy a given set because of the clever ideas they showcase in the instructions, and then when you get bored of that set, you can take it apart, put together the pieces (and ideas) in your own new ways.

The Lego Movie was built around the idea of how Legos really work. The tension between following the instructions and doing your own thing was the central conflict of the film (and neither was presented as the one right answer). I know that doesn't seem like much of a moral dilemma to base a film on, but it's a real question, and one that's unique to the world of Lego. So they took advantage of their assets to make something original.

Another original point I loved was the treatment of the prophecy trope. I just don't get what is supposed to be so compelling about the story of the young protagonist who is destined by prophecy to solve the universe's problems. I discussed this recently in Harry Potter and the three tropes, and then when my kids recently decided to re-watch the Star Wars films, I noticed they used the same damn three tropes. (Well, with one difference -- in Star Wars, but mom didn't sacrifice herself for her kids so much as randomly die when the plot required it.)

The Lego Movie gave us a far more interesting and entertaining look at how prophecies work. The film explored how belief a the prophecy affects people's behavior, and showed people continuing to hold their beliefs even in the face of contrary evidence (like the fact that Emmet was "the special" but wasn't a master builder).

One trope The Lego Movie unfortunately used in the traditional phoning-it-in way was to have the entire conflict center around the protagonists having to fight the villain who is evil just for the sake of being evil. As I've said before, I really hate this trope, and it drives me nuts that it is so ubiquitous. Can't we as a culture come up with anything more interesting than that to offer our kids? But I forgive The Lego Movie for this, and even for using the painfully unoriginal formula in which the villain ties the hero to a time bomb and leaves him there (to escape). I forgive The Lego Movie because Lord Business and Bad Cop were pretty entertaining as villains go -- and because insisting that films not use the "evil villain" trope would be to hold them up to a impossibly high standard, more challenging even than the Bechdel Test.

Speaking of the Bechdel Test, yes, The Lego Movie passes it. Not with flying colors, but, happily, one of the fun jokes of the piece (where Unikitty is listing off the things Cloud Cuckoo Land doesn't have) was an exchange between two named female characters. Overall, the treatment of gender wasn't too bad, but could have been a lot better. I essentially agree with this article by Tasha Robinson about how Wyldstyle's awesomeness served mostly just to demonstrate Emmett's awesomeness.

Although I think Robinson's analysis is right on the money, I want to temper it with a couple of remarks. First, it's not really true (as Robinson claimed) that "Her only post-introduction story purpose is to be rescued, repeatedly". Wyldstyle has action sequences throughout and saves the day multiple times. The climactic win in the end was due to Wyldstyle's broadcast encouraging the ordinary citizens to use their own creativity to build whatever they want. Of course her brilliant idea centered around her great epiphany that Emmet was actually awesome -- thus proving Robinson was right with the second half of her claim about Wyldstyle's purpose: "to eventually confer the cool-girl approval that seals Emmet’s transformation from loser to winner."

I mention my one technical quibble with Robinson above because I want to contrast it with what she said about How to Train Your Dragon II. I read her article before watching How to Train Your Dragon II, and thought about her claim about Hiccups mom, that "once the introductions are finally done, and the battle starts, she immediately becomes useless, both to the rest of the cast and to the rapidly moving narrative. She faces the villain (the villain she’s apparently been successfully resisting alone for years!) and she’s instantly, summarily defeated." And I went into the cinema thinking, "Oh, come on -- it can't be that bad." But it was!!

The mom's uselessness in the end of How to Train Your Dragon II struck me as really weird and incongruous because the action scene was just so damn long. Like a lot of films, the whole last section of the movie is a sequence of action segments as the heroes eventually defeat the villains. In all this time, they couldn't come up with one thing for this amazing mom character to do that is critical to saving the day? And it's the contrast with the Lego Movie in particular that makes the problem in How to Train Your Dragon II especially striking: in the action sequence at the end of the Lego Movie, every single one of the main hero characters (Emmet, Wyldstlye, Vitruvius, Unikitty, Metalbeard, Benny, Batman) gets an individual moment of doing something critical.

Of course, listing off the main characters like that gives another hint about the Lego Movie's gender problem: of these seven heroes, only two of them are female. OTOH, it could be worse -- it could be just one. Unikitty, by the way, is very cool and entertaining. She's not defined in relation to some male character. She's a princess, but her princessness is about running a fun fantasy land, not finding a prince. Plus, she has her own interesting personal conflict trying to remain cheerful at all times -- and learning how that doesn't exactly work (reminiscent of the "Turn it off" number from The Book of Mormon).

In The Lego Movie's favor, they cast a black character in a role that would stereotypically be played by a white character (instead of putting a black character in a stereotypical black role) -- and they played it up in a funny joke where Vitruvius confuses Gandalf with Dumbledore. I wish they could have done a little better at mixing it up for the ladies.

Personally, I'm the parent who is as interested as the kids in playing with our Lego collection. And I thought it was fun that the Lego Movie included such a parent character. The sad part is that if they'd cast that part as someone who looks like me -- i.e. a woman -- it would have been criticized as "tokenism" or as unrealistic or something. We're not at the point where I can simply watch an ordinary movie and expect to see a character I can relate to, in my own gender, and have it be perfectly ordinary and not even noteworthy. We've still got a long way to go, baby...

This point aside, the film has a lot of really clever, funny stuff in it. Looking at all of the amazing details of the Lego worlds in the movie makes me want to get to my Lego table see what I can build! (With the kids, of course.) We can make our own little world where everything is awesome!

Sunday, November 02, 2014

First, catch a wild mommy!

According to Leo, that's the first step in building a custom Lego set.

This is a rock-climbing cabin set I designed, based on the Creator "Mountain Hut" set.

On first glance, it might not be obvious how this is different from the three versions in the official instructions. Basically, I took some components straight from the set instructions, but I combined them in a new way and added a bunch of my own original elements and components.
It doesn't seem like much, but it's trickier to do that than you might think.

The kids also requested some custom play-sets for some of their favorite characters. Nico requested a zombie fortress that could be used for fighting the plants (as in plants-vs-zombies):

Complete with a tower and turret for the Yeti-Zombie and a winged flying-ship with a landing-pad in the fortress.

Leo wanted a fortress for his "Rabids" a.k.a. "Lapins Crétins" :

I actually made and photographed all of these sets in March, but I postponed posting the photos because I was planning to make an stop-motion animated YouTube short of my mountain cabin. But with the number of projects on my plate, it looks like that's never going to happen, so I figured I might as well post these photos.


Sunday, September 21, 2014

You know what would be awesome?

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

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

But you know what would be awesome?

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

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

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Win-win for Feminism!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stuff the atheists can learn from the feminists!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then what happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This should be an interesting ride.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Atheism and ruining it for everybody!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Fun at Camp Quest Switzerland!!

So, how was Camp Quest? you ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What else is wrong with Harry Potter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Teaching kids to program with Android!

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

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Looking forward to Camp Quest!!

You may recall the time I visited Camp Quest Minnesota (if not, see here). Since then, I've been trying to find a way to send my kids there.  The problem is that we only get to visit friends and family in the US for a few weeks every other year or so, and we have a fantastic time visiting with them!!

It makes it tricky for me to take a week of this precious visiting time to send my kids to camp, no matter how cool...

Imagine my surprise when I was reading Greta Christina's fabulous book Coming Out Atheist, and found she mentioned Switzerland as one of the places where there's a Camp Quest!!

Naturally, I got in touch with the organizers and not only signed up my kids but volunteered to come along and help out myself.

The stuff that's planned looks like loads of fun!!  There will be some cool Science experiments (and some Math games and puzzles provided by yours truly) in addition to the usual camp stuff (nature hikes, campfires, etc.)

The camp will be held from the 27th of July to the 2nd of August 2014, and there are still openings -- so sign up now!!  It will be primarily a German-speaking camp, though some accommodation can be made for English or French speaking kids (especially if they have some working knowledge of German).

I'm really looking forward to this!  I enjoyed going to camp as a kid, and this is sure to be so much more fun than LDS girls' camp!  I'll report on how it goes. :D

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Sun-dried tomato Mascarpone spread!

Here's another little recipe I invented!

I like throwing parties, so I'm always on the lookout for new finger-food ideas.  I would blog more of my creations, but I'm not that big on photography.

Anyway, I love sun-dried tomatoes, but they can be a challenge to work with because they have such a strong, rich flavor.  In the past, I've tried just spreading Mascarpone cheese on them (as a fresh and creamy complement to the sharp and salty tomatoes).  The flavors complement each other, but it was just too strong and rich.  So, I decided to chop the tomatoes and mix them into the mascarpone to make a spread.

Here's what you need:

  • (approximately) 250 grams of Mascarpone cheese.  Take it out of the fridge well in advance so that it will be soft when mixing it with the other ingredients.  It will also stick to cucumbers better soft (if you decide to spread it on cucumber slices).
  • (approximately) 50-75 grams of sun-dried tomatoes, chopped small.  I find that it's simplest to chop them all lengthwise first and then chop them crosswise in bunches.
  • 2 to 3 Tablespoons of pine nuts.
  • Oregano to taste, either fresh chopped or dried.  As you can see from the picture, I used fresh oregano sprigs from my garden as a garnish.
  • Grated lemon rind.  Basically take one small lemon and fine-grate all of the yellow surface of it off to use in this recipe.
Mix all of the ingredients thoroughly, and it's ready to spread!

This can of course be spread on bread or crackers, but it is especially good on cucumber slices because the light, fresh, crisp cucumber flavor and texture complement the sharp, rich, creamy flavor of the spread.  The biggest challenge with cucumbers is that spreads don't stick very well, but (as mentioned above) it sticks a little better if the spread is at room temperature.  A friend recommended placing the cucumber slices on paper towels (to eliminate some of the water), but that may reduce the crispiness.

I've tested this recipe at a party I threw for my colleagues and also at a party I threw for the post-Mormons of Switzerland, and it has been a hit each time.  I hope you'll like it!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Fun with quinoa!!

Like the food-storage mom, I'm interested in cooking with dried beans and grains because it's healthy and economical.  I don't do it as often as I'd like (mostly because the people in my family don't like anything more complicated than plain pasta), but every now and then I like to try it.

As soon as I read that quinoa has a high protein content and can be grown in arid land, I immediately wanted to try to add more quinoa to my diet.  I'm not actually vegetarian, but I think that it's important to try to eat as little meat as possible, for environmental reasons.  It appears that quinoa is a pretty Earth-friendly food to switch to!

Pretty much all of the recipes I've seen for quinoa are variants of a tabbouleh-style salad, so I went out and bought a quinoa cookbook, in hopes of finding a bit more variety.  After reading through it, however, I was no more inspired than before -- and I kind of came to the conclusion that maybe making it into a salad is the classic quinoa dish for a reason.

In my version, I cooked the quinoa according to the standard instructions on the package, and I also included some kidney beans and chick-peas that I had prepared (soaked overnight and then cooked at a low boil for an hour, then strained).

After putting these three ingredients together, you can kind of just throw in whatever other ingredients you like in this sort of salad.  In my case I added a packet of feta cheese (cubed), 1/2 cucumber (diced), chopped pitted olives, and some fresh herbs (parsley, dill, mint).  I also sautéd some chopped onion with pine nuts and pumpkin seeds, and added them as well.  Then I added oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper to taste.

I found that quinoa also works as an additional ingredient in my usual sort-of-minestrone soup recipe.  That recipe is one to remember if you're actually living off your food storage because it doesn't require any fresh ingredients (though I usually use fresh green onions).

In addition to the beans and chick-peas (soaked overnight), put about 100 grams of quinoa in 2 liters of broth, and cook them for about an hour with some peeled, chopped tomatoes (I used canned), and some chopped onions and herbs.

I would like to maybe try some more adventurous recipes with dried beans and/or quinoa, but these basic recipes are some good basics to start with.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Now I am officially annoyed with Gmail

They just deleted my son's account without even giving us the opportunity to download his existing emails.

Here's what happened:

I set up a gmail account for my son a few years ago, which he has been using (very rarely) to keep in touch with friends and family members.  The other day, I wanted to log him into his account to get him to reply to a message from his grandparents, and gmail passed me through one of those personal info forms, as it sometimes does. (I've given them my mobile number on one such screen, for example, and tested it -- in case I lose my password or something.)

Anyway, this time, the info page was a simple name-gender-birthdate form.  For a moment I hesitated because I don't know what they might be using our personal data for, but then my "What the hell, it doesn't matter..." attitude kicked in, and I just went ahead and filled it out for my son.

Next thing I know, his account is suspended, and I'm notified that it will be deleted in a month unless I can provide an ID card showing that my son is at least 13 years old.  Well, he's not 13 years old, so I can't prove that he is!  And I now I can't even download an archive of his messages before they get deleted!

Now, some of you are probably saying that there was probably a software license that I clicked through at some point affirming that the user of the account is at least 13.  That's possible, but normally when there's this sort of age restriction, the company makes you click a box specifically affirming your age.  I'm generally very careful about this.  For example, I was setting up a YouTube account for my son (back when YouTube and Gmail accounts were separate), and when I got to the bit where it said you have to be at least 13 to have a YouTube account, I stopped and told him he could have his own YouTube account when he turns 13.

I guess the problem is that now Google has linked gmail in with all of these other services (like YouTube and Google+) that aren't open to kids.  But I can think of a few solutions that would be a lot better than surprising us by deleting his account:

  • Create a separate category of restricted accounts (for kids) that are just email,
  • Simply suspend his account until he turns 13 (he's 12 1/2 for heaven's sake!),
  • Allow parents (with demonstrated ID) to download an archive of the messages of any kids who created accounts before this restriction.
I know that ignorance of the rules is no excuse, but sincerely, it didn't occur to me that it would be a problem for my kid to have an email account.  Even his own school created an email account for him (which he hasn't been using, but I guess he will now...).

The next thing I did was, naturally, to download an archive of all of my own gmail messages.  Well, that's what I did right after kicking myself for relying on gmail so heavily for all of my personal data needs.  If, for example, they suddenly decided that they require some criterion that I don't meet -- and they spontaneously deleted my account over it (which they may well be legally allowed to do) -- I would be up shit creek, so to speak.

Then I started imagining writing a horror flick about some evil villain taking over Google and holding everyone's data hostage.  Scary!!

Anyone else out there have a similar problem, and opinions on a solution?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Clash of cultures!! Maybe one day I'll get this Swiss thing right...

A little over a week ago, I posted the following status on Facebook:
Just got back from a short trip to Lyon. It was fun and the food was great, but I was surprised by how dingy the city seemed. I think this was mostly because it was raining the whole time, so we hardly went out, and when we did explore the city, everything was cold, wet, gray, and miserable. But I think it's also because Switzerland has messed up my expectations of how clean and new everything needs to be.
A couple of days later, I got a reminder of the fact that the amazing cleanliness in Switzerland does come with a price...

I was sitting at home watching my kids and the kids of a friend of mine (well, passively -- I was also doing my skype German lesson).  The kids had recently come in from playing outside when I heard a knock at the door.  It was my neighbor, who had come to tell me that the kids had tracked mud in the hallway -- and to explain to me that I need to tell them to wipe their feet carefully before coming into the building.

You may be thinking that's kinda weird.  If you are thinking that, then you have never lived in Switzerland.  In Switzerland, this is totally normal, expected behavior.  In Switzerland, if you are doing something wrong (making a mess or excessive noise, for example), you can pretty much expect that someone is going to tell you, politely (usually), that you are doing it wrong, and need to knock it off.

This system has certain advantages.  Remember that problem with le merde in France?  I probably don't have to tell you that they don't have that problem here.  Plus there's something to be said for a direct approach.

From my own experience, Mormon culture encourages exactly the opposite approach:  conflict is to be avoided at all costs, so when there's a problem, it often festers and escalates and then comes out in passive-aggressive ways.  (See these discussions.)  In this case, however, this is the first complaint this neighbor has made in the year we've been living here, and now I feel fairly confident that I'm not doing anything else that's too big a problem.  If I were, someone would tell me.

And, of course, that was the next part of the story.  Can you guess?  My husband and I received an email from the same neighbor a couple of days later complaining that we hadn't vacuumed the hallway.

The funny thing is that it was simply a clash of cultural expectations.  There really wasn't that much dirt in the hallway (well, by American or French standards, anyway) and the hallway is cleaned regularly.  I had assumed that by apologizing and promising it wouldn't happen again, I was done.  But a Swiss colleague confirmed that when a Swiss person points out a mess that is your fault, that means that you are to clean it up immediately.

Now it's funny to me to re-read the post on Swiss etiquette I wrote after about a year of living in Switzerland.  I had mentioned a person silently hinting that someone was doing something wrong (failing to move to the "standing" lane on the escalator) as an example of Swiss politeness.  It was a funny scene, but clearly I was interpreting it through my own cultural lens of what constitutes polite behavior.  Now I think that guy was probably a foreigner. ;)

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

State of the Me: 2013 - 2014

I'm glad it is time to assess where I'm at and talk about goals!  Why?  Well, because I've had this weird malaise lately, and I feel like just taking the time to analyze it (in order to write this post) has been helpful.

My analysis in a nutshell is the following:  My day-to-day life is actually going fairly well, but I have a number of creative projects I'd like to spend more time on, and I'm stressed by the fact that it's not clear when that's ever going to happen.

Now for the details:

Home: We've been in our new apartment (condo, actually) for just over a year.  It's really perfect for our lifestyle (location, size, style) -- the only drawback is that I spend more time on housework simply because I've finally gotten to the point where I really can put everything away and have the whole place completely clean and organized, for the first time since I-don't-know-when!  I also spent a lot of time this past year building storage shelving in the basement; so much so that I've joked that organizing my basement is my hobby!  It's hardly a joke, actually -- the basement looks fantastic, and now I can find anything!!

Job: I've been working for Dybuster for almost four years now, making it my longest real job ever.  As always, I have a lot of responsibility and a variety of tasks -- it has basically been going well the whole time.

German: Learning German has been an ongoing obstacle for the six years I've been living in Switzerland.  The main problem has been that my motivation to learn has been more negative than positive, eg. it bugs me that I have trouble communicating and that people have to translate for me, but aside from that, I never really wanted to speak German the way I was thrilled to be able to communicate in a new language back when I was first learning French.  Well, that has actually finally changed this year -- I've gotten over this hump to the point where I enjoy speaking German. Yay!!  (I can recommend my instructor who practices with me via skype, weekly.)

kids:  The kids have ongoing problems in school (learning to be tri-lingual is easier for kids than grown-ups, but still it is no simple matter!).  Things could be a lot better, but we're basically on track as best we can be.  We have loads of fun just playing, and the kids have taken the lead on some pretty impressive projects.  Still, I would like to invest more time and energy into organizing Math, Science, and programming projects to share with them.

relationships:  I feel like I've had a lot of good friendships with people who have been important to me over the past few years.  This area is my biggest goal for 2014, to cultivate new and existing relationships -- perhaps because I've seen the importance of friendships in my life lately.  Ideally, I think it would be cool if I could find friends with whom I could speak French or German, or -- even cooler -- a friend who is interested in participating in my blogging and websites.  With my husband, I think things are going well, and we're on the same page with our home/life/family ideas.  We enjoy spending time together, but we don't share all of our hobbies -- nor do we expect to -- so I think it is reasonable to seek more friendships.

blogging:  I enjoy my work with Main Street Plaza and the Mormon Alumni Association, but I'm thinking I really need to find a friend who is psyched about sharing this hobby with me.  I've spent too long feeling like I'm annoying people if I bring up my Internet hobbies, and consequently I end up feeling like my Internet activities are too disjoint from the rest of my life.  Then I don't spend as much time on them as I'd like to.  If I had one friend to hang out with and talk about this stuff, it would make all the difference.

health:  I have been attending French yoga for as long as I've been at Dybuster, and it's great!  At first I had to force myself to do it, but now I can't stay away.  I've also been making an effort to eat more vegetarian and drink in moderation.  The fact that (at 42) I'm not nearly as pretty as I was 10 years ago has been difficult to deal with.  However, I feel like I've done a good job of looking and feeling my best.  I just hope that I can get a good portrait of our family in 2014 -- we've basically never had a good portrait.  Also, I really need to schedule myself a dentist appointment...

So, things aren't going so bad, right?  I had a nice, relaxing day today and I gave haircuts to all three of my boys.  Maybe with a bit of time-management, 2014 will be the year to really get some stuff done! :D