Tuesday, October 26, 2010

You can help it get better - Patton Oswalt

Recently, Dan Barker's video project called It Gets Better has received a lot of great press, as it should.  If you haven't heard of it yet, get out from under your rock and see The It Gets Better YouTube channel and video.  It's great to see so many people pro-actively reaching out to young gay people who are bullied.

Patton Oswalt, one of my personal favorite comedians, recently posted a response on his website called You Can Help It Get Better (here is the MySpace blog link, since I can't seem to find a permalink for Patton's website).  It serves to remind us that while it does get better for the kids who were bullied in school, those who do the bullying can make it better for them right now.  I wanted to put up an excerpt, but it's all so well-written and thoughtful that I couldn't bear cutting anything.  I'm putting the whole thing here:

I’ve been watching a lot of these “It Gets Better” videos online.   I’m glad they exist.   I’m glad people are making them.   I’d bet, if you could do some sort of poll, you’d find out that saying, “It gets better…” to a younger version of yourself is something that a majority of people would opt to do. The bullied and the bullies. 
I was both.   Bullied, and then a bully. 
So this is my version of an, “It Gets Better” video. Only I’m not addressing it to the bullied.   And I’m not addressing it to the bullies, either. I’m addressing it to the bully’s little friends.

Dear Guy Who Hangs Out With the Bully and Eggs Him On – 
Good move. Really. I know what you’re doing, and I know how it seems like the smart move for you. ‘Cause I did it, too. 
When I was in the fifth grade, I started gaining weight, and by the end of that school year, I was a fat kid.   I’d been skinny and oblivious up until then – free time meant running around outside, playing soccer, climbing trees.   Summer meant swimming. 
But then I got swept up in reading, and movies, and music and other sedentary activities. My mind felt like a blazing stock car engine most days, and I didn’t miss the running around so much.   If I could curl up with a good book, or a drawing pad, or an old monster movie on TV, all the better.   Pretzels and chips and Cokes had the carbs and sugar to feed my swelling, itching brain – especially when I was re-listening to Devo songs. 
By the time middle school started, I had the Victim Kit firmly sewed on.   Cystic acne, headgear and braces, man-tits and a stupid haircut. Sixth and seventh grade were no fucking fun for me. Summer camp was torture, swimming pools were humiliation ponds, sports were a whirling wall of razors I didn’t dare approach. 
By the time eighth grade rolled around, I’d adjusted my strategy.   Figure out who the biggest bullies and abusers were, use my nascent comedy skills to make ‘em laugh and hone their taunts, and become part of the asshole entourage. 
It was a survival strategy. I had a hand in tormenting an awkward girl named Robin in my eighth grade personal hygiene class.   Also a fat(ter), asthmatic kid with a stutter at YMCA camp whose name I can’t remember and countless, faceless others as I glided painlessly in the wake of a trio of bullies whose names I also can’t remember.   I only knew they weren’t bullying me, and were actually glad to see me in the morning, ‘cause here comes a guy who knows seven crueler ways to call someone an asshole or shithead (beyond just “asshole” and “shithead”). 
By junior year of high school the braces and headgear came off, I lost weight and my skin miraculously cleared up.   I got a girlfriend who taught me how to cut my hair. And I carried around (and still carry) a poison vein of self-loathing.   
In someone’s memory – in many people’s memories – I’m a snickering, sneering asswipe who hurt and insulted them while peering out from behind the muscular lats of a bigger, more frightening asswipe. There are times when I firmly believe I should have also ended up like a lot of the bullies – stupid, directionless, job-bound and destined for obscurity, anger and oblivion.   
It doesn’t fix a fucking thing, for me, to try my best to take the underdog’s side now. Or to embrace the awkward and outcast.   That dark slice of regret and disgust with a younger self will never be erased.
So I’m talking to a younger self here – the young Bully’s Little Buddy.   I’m trying to tell you that yes, I know how scary middle school and high school and the world must seem, with this clear demarcation (and it seems to get bolder and uglier every day) between abused and abuser. And I understand exactly why you’d want to be on the side of the powerful, cruel and, by default, secure.   It’s the reason why some poor people get angry about rich people having to pay more taxes. It’s why people join celebrities’ entourages.   It’s why two oppressed, disenfranchised groups fight with each other, instead of the powerful entity that’s oppressing and disenfranchising them. 
All of that is true.   But it doesn’t change the fact that you have power if you choose to take it.   You have power to go stand on the side of the bullied, to stand up to the bullies, to set an example.   You can take a deep breath and look at the popular crowd – are they popular because they’re good, smart people?   Or are they popular because people are afraid of being their targets?   If the second example is the truth, then you can reject them.   You can form your own circle, be your own person, and start thinking for yourself early.
I didn’t. And I won’t blame you if you don’t either.   It’s so fucking hard.   It does get better for the outcast and the bullied.   But you, in the bully’s entourage, can help make it better by taking away part of the bully’s power. 
You can take away you.   And if you take the dare, and do it, you’ll be shocked to see how deep it diminishes the weight and scope and space a bully takes up in the world. And when you see that, and experience it, it’ll be your first – and unarguable – taste of how much weight and scope and space you have. 
I’ll never know.   I never did it.   
Will you? 
Patton Oswalt

Friday, October 22, 2010


One year ago today, some idiot decided it would be a good idea to start a blog on atheism, science and skepticism.

Since then I think I've learned a lot, both about the subject I blog about, and blogging itself.  One of the reasons I started blogging was to give me an excuse to practice writing regularly (something I hated doing in the past).  It's nice to have a place to write regularly, where I don't have to obsess over every word and phrase.  Looking over my previous posts, I feel like I've become much better at getting my thoughts across since I started one year ago (though I still have a lot I can improve).

It's been pretty slow on the blogging front for me lately.  I've been interviewing for jobs, and been keeping busy tutoring and doing a few other project to pay the bills for now.  It seems I'm busier being unemployed than I was as a graduate student.  Hopefully that changes soon, and I can get some more time to write here.  

Just want to say thanks to all of you who read my blog, especially those who comment and discuss these thoughts with me.  I look forward to continuing writing and learning with all of you.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Job Interview: Funny Questions

So I've been applying for a bunch of programming jobs during the past month, and have been on a few interviews so far.  I've got my big one coming up next week (At Google Manhattan!), so I've been preparing pretty hard for that.  Today, I went to take a logic assessment for another company on Long Island.  The test gave me a made-up programming language, and asked me questions about its syntax and semantics.  I won't go into too many details, since I don't want to give out specifics about the company's test, but one of the questions on string concatenation was something like this:

If GOD="HOLY" and GHOST="WATER", how can we get "HOLY WATER"?

And as I'm taking the test, all kinds of smart-ass remarks are pouring into my brain about where to get holy water.  Of course, I'm in a room with the HR rep and two other candidates, so I tried my best to keep the snickering to a minimum.  Luckily the test wasn't too hard, and I just got a call back for the final interview next week :-).

They don't suspect a thing... MWAH HA HA!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Faulty logic can be fun

This is probably a fake, but it's funny anyway (and it's certainly not a stretch to think that some new-agers would agree with this argument if presented to them):

It surprises me how incredibly bad most people are at understanding even basic logic.  I've always enjoyed logic because its an excellent example of creativity emerging from a deterministic system of rules and premises.  Logical arguments are beautiful; even ones that I don't end up agreeing with are often fascinating to me.  Take the ontological argument, devised by Anselm, for the existence of God (from Curtis Brown's website at Trinity University):

1. God is something than which nothing greater can be conceived.  (definition of "God")
2. If someone understands the concept of God (i.e. the concept of something than which nothing greater can be conceived) then God "exists in the understanding" of that person.  (definition of "exists in the understanding")
3. It is greater to exist in reality than in the understanding alone.  (More precisely:  if x exists in the understanding but not in reality, and y is exactly like x except that y also exists in reality, then y is greater than x.)
4. The fool understands the concept of God (= the concept of something than which nothing greater can be conceived).
5. Therefore (from 2 and 4) God exists in the understanding of the fool.
6. Suppose for the sake of argument that God exists only in the understanding of the fool (i.e. not in reality as well). (This assumption will form the basis of a reductio ad absurdum.)
7. Then we could conceive of something exactly like what exists in the fool's understanding except that it also exists in reality.
8.  The entity that we conceived in 7 would be greater than the entity that exists only in the fool's understanding (by 3)
9. But in that case what the fool conceived was not after all something than which nothing greater can be conceived (after all, we've just conceived of something greater).
10.  So we have a contradiction!  (Between 5 and 9)
11. So the assumption we made in 6 must be mistaken (since it led to a contradiction).
12. So God exists in reality.  (6 was the assumption that God does not exist in reality; since 6 is mistaken, God does exist in reality.)

As mistaken as I think this argument is (for a number of reasons I won't get into, because plenty of philosophers have already pointed them out), its still an impressive argument.  To come up with this argument took incredible creativity on the part of Anselm.  And while I do think it is mistaken, it is quite difficult, when first presented with this argument, to determine exactly where the problem lies.

Most of us are introduced to logic in math classes, when we first learn to construct truth tables, and then go on to prove things such as the congruency of two triangle.  Unfortunately, most of us never learn what other practical benefits logic has in the real world.  I suspect that if more people understood and could apply even a little bit of logic to the real world, clear, critical thinking would also be more prevalent.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

This is what education in the US looks like

Risha Mullins is an educator: an English teacher in Kentucky, who used Young Adult (YA) literature to encourage her kids to read more, which was shown effective when her students' test scores were markedly improved.  You'd think parents and administrators would be happy their kids are reading more, and doing well on their tests.  How did they respond?:

Two years ago this week. A parent whose child had chosen to read Lessons from a Dead Girl by Jo Knowles, and how that parent sent an email to the superintendent, the board members, the principals, and me saying that I taught “soft pornography.” Remembering the way my stomach hurt when I read the email, how I cried and stayed up all night drafting a nine-page rebuttal that began with, “Literature is my life, and I take my career very seriously. I have worked extremely hard to get students to read, and the school is just beginning to see the impact of that.” Remembering getting called to my principal’s office the next day and berated for sending the rebuttal to everyone the parent had sent to (I did not send it to the parent). Remembering how my curriculum coach said she had thought I'd be fired before she even made it to school that morning.

Remembering how stupid—how na├»ve—I was to send my rebuttal to the entire English department, thinking they needed to know that literature—our livelihood!—was under attack, thinking that we were a team and that we were supposed to support each other. Remembering the anger, the shock, that surged through me when the only two teachers in my department who bothered replying at all, did so to belittle me with how I had misrepresented “the classics” (which I had not done). Remembering what it felt like when I was asked to resign as the Literacy Committee chair--after only a month in the position--because “it just didn’t look good for the committee right now.”

After that email, my curriculum coach told me—in the principal’s office, with him present—that she had to beg the superintendent not to shut down the Moo Moo Book Club, and that she quoted him when she said, “one more problem with books and the club is gone.” I remember asking if he could do that. And I remember her laughing. Then on October 10, 2008, I received the edict—on signed letterhead: “After investigating the situation and discussing it with Ms. X, I have decided that all books in question in your classroom library and on the Moo Moo Club reading list will be pulled and reviewed…” Every book. Class and club. And yet not a single official challenge had been filed, as  board policy required for a book to be suspended. 

She goes on to describe more and more backlash to her YA literature from parents and administrators alike.  You can read her entire story here (she pulled the original page from her blog because of hostile messages being sent to her former administrators).  I highly recommend it.

I just don't get how other teachers and administrators can be so oblivious.  I know there are going to be crazy parents who don't approve of their perfect Christian children being "corrupted" by those evil books these teachers keep pushing on them.  But you'd think other educators would get behind a teacher who is encouraging reading, and learning about new things.  It's bad enough teachers are constantly assessed with incredibly flawed standardized tests.  But here, a teacher actually improves these test scores while getting kids excited about reading and learning, and there is still no support for her peers and superiors. These kids are going back to hating their English classes, reading less and less, and will be hurt in the long run.

As long as fundamentalist Christian parents are allowed to enforce their beliefs on school districts, this type of censorship will continue to happen.  When Christians get offended, school districts often listen.  My question is: where are the pro-education parents who are upset about the school kowtowing to whims of the fundamentalists?  Why don't I ever hear about a group of parents pressuring the schools to improve science education (including evolution), or adding controversial, thought-provoking literature?  I know these people exist.  Look at the comments on Ms. Mullins' blog post.  There are plenty of people who agree with her, and went through similar experiences in school.

What is the reason schools seem more likely to listen to parents who promote censorship, rather than parents who want their kids exposed to new ideas?  Is it because the second group of parents are disorganized and relatively quiet?  Or is there some other reason religious parents get more attention?

AMA With Michael Behe's Son

I found this this morning while browsing Reddit, and thought it was quite interesting:

Michael Behe is the Intelligent Design advocate famous for his testimony at the Dover v. Kitzmiller trial, and coining the term "irreducible complexity".  His son, it turns out, turned away from his family's Catholic faith and is now an atheist.

He is currently doing an AMA on reddit, and so far it's a really interesting inside peek at both his and his father's beliefs.  (For those of you who aren't redditors: AMA stands for "Ask Me Anything."  It's basically a forum where commenters can ask questions, and the original submitter answers them.)

So if you're interested, ask him anything!

Monday, October 4, 2010

He's not even there!

OK, this is getting ridiculous.

On Friday, the comic strip Non Sequitur by Wiley Miller was rejected by several newspapers due to it's content.  Here is the strip:

So we're now afraid that even mentioning that someone might draw Muhammad will offend?  Miller says it best himself:
“the irony of editors being afraid to run even such a tame cartoon as this that satirizes the blinding fear in media regarding anything surrounding Islam sadly speaks for itself. Indeed, the terrorists have won.”
Exactly.  I don't know why I would trust the media if they are so afraid of offending someone by such a tame political commentary.  It's quite a sad state of affairs we are currently in.

Happiness and Reason

There's a Methodist church just down the road from me, with one of those signs you often see being made fun of on the internet.  Honestly, most of the messages have been benign so far, and a few have even been pretty funny.  A couple of weeks ago it said something to the effect of: "Remember: When your life needs a reboot, Jesus saves" which I thought was quite clever, being the nerd that I am.

I passed by the sign again yesterday, and they had a new message up:

Happiness without reason is the ultimate freedom 

My first thought after reading it was: "That's idiotic.  Do people really prefer being obliviously happy to actually thinking?"  It seemed so alien of an idea to me.  But it got me thinking more about happiness and my belief system.

I don't doubt that some people who believe all kinds of nonsense truly are happy, perhaps even because of those irrational beliefs.  I'm sure some people really are blissfully happy and carefree, because they think God is taking care of them, and that everything is happening for a reason.

Furthermore, I know that being concerned with the atheist community does cause me some unhappiness.  I believe that this cause is important and worth the trouble, of course.  That's why I'm writing this blog.  But it is frustrating to have your character and morals questioned by our opponents, either directly or indirectly. I've had many more positive experiences than negative, but there's no doubt it can be tiresome at times.

Is it possible I could be happier if I weren't so concerned?  What if I was carefree?  I don't see how I could be, it would be unreasonable given the current state of affairs, particularly in America, for non-theists.  But if I were an unreasonable person, it's certainly possible I could be completely oblivious of these problems, and happier because of it.  To me, this leads to two questions:  1. Would I be happier if I wasn't so concerned with being reasonable and rational? and 2. Is being happy more or less important than thinking clearly and critically?

George Bernard Shaw's words came to mind when thinking about all of this:

The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. 

But what exactly makes being sober better than being drunk?  I've drink once in a while, and have always had a good time.  What is it that makes me think being sober is somehow a better state than drunk?

I thought about this for a long time, and my conclusion stems from the commonalities between being sober and being a clear and critical thinker.  I realized that one of the reasons I was having so much trouble tackling this issue is because I was ignoring a very important part of all the questions I was asking.  These were personal questions, and every one of them contained words like "I" "me" and "myself."  These words are often thrown around and used without much thinking.  But I'm a philosopher dammit, and I'm going to be consistent!  When I use words like "I" and "myself,"  I'm not just talking about my physical body or my brain; I'm talking about my "self," the thing that makes me, me.  If you could transfer my identity from my current body to another one, my self is the thing that would need to be transferred.  Nothing else would really be required.*  Some might like to use the word "soul," but I prefer not to confuse with metaphysical language.

The point is this: I may have a good time when I have a few drinks, but there's something about being in that state that make me less "me."  In the same way, I probably could be happier if I let myself be blissfully unaware of the world around me, but that would require a fundamental change to my self.  That person wouldn't be "me," in a very real sense.  As difficult as it can be, I am a critical thinker; it's an important part of who I am, and it helps define other parts of me.  That doesn't mean I can't make changes and improvements to my self and my life, but they are going to come about via rational thought, not just wishful thinking.

In addition, thinking critically gives my self the freedom to make decisions based on reality, the same way being sober gives me more freedom to act based on my reason than being drunk.  I had forgotten about that word "freedom" in the original message on the church board, but it actually turns out to be pretty important (and completely wrong, it seems).  Those people who believe whatever makes them feel good, regardless of evidence, may be happier.  But they are not free.  They aren't free to change their minds, because they have no faculty by which to do it.  Being happy without reason is a simple loop, without any feedback from the real world.  How can you improve your self if you never get any input from the outside?

So after a lot of thought, I prefer being true to myself and thinking critically.  That doesn't mean there aren't things I can do to be happier, but it does mean it's going to take real work.  It's not enough for me to just wish all my problems and concerns away.  If it was, I wouldn't be me.  And I've gotta be me.

* Perhaps it's impossible to transfer my self without using my brain, or even my body.  But if it were possible, my current brain isn't really necessary for any essential reason.  My argument isn't really concerned with whether a self could exist inside another brain; only that if it could, that's all you'd need to transfer.  I'd recommend The Mind's I by Douglas Hofstadter and Dan Dennett for a great collection of essays on this subject.

I'm going to Comic Con New York (i.e., WTF?)

A couple of friends and I are going to NYC this Saturday for Comic-Con.  It's a bit odd; I've never been a big comic book nerd, particularly compared to lots of other science/skeptic bloggers out there.  But what the hell, I'll go and nerd out and report back next week.  Does anyone have a Green Lantern t-shirt I can borrow?

I'm definitely going to try to get to the SMBC panel Saturday afternoon, but other than that, I have no idea what I'm planning to do.  Any suggestions?