Saturday, February 09, 2013
Never give up, never surrender
Never give up, never surrenderThe above quote is of course from the movie Galaxy Quest, where it is the catch-phrase of Alan Rickman's character. Or at least, the catchphrase of the character that Rickman's character plays. Confused? Well, you've obviously not watched the movie, and you should stop reading right now, and go watch it.
Why am I using that quote? Well, it was the quote that sprang into mind when I read about Lee Moore's attempt to create a "cease fire" among the fractions in skepticism and atheism (for more reactions to his suggestion, see these posts by Stephanie Zvan and Ophelia Benson).
The fractions that Lee Moore wants to create a "ceasefire" between, are the fraction that thinks that sexism is a problem, and should be addressed, and the fraction fighting this every step along the way. The first group, which I belong to, are trying to get stuff like harassment policies implemented at convention, working for more female speakers, and address occurrences of sexism. The other group, which I am firmly against, spend their time on personal attacks, making threats, and trying to get feminists shut out of the atheist/skeptic/secular movement. The level of time and energy they will spend on attacking their favorite targets is truly sickening.
Going back to the quote. The reason why it sprang into mind, is that this is my feeling on the matter.
To clearify: I wouldn't mind a ceasefire between the two fractions, since in reality, there is only one fraction attacking, the other fraction is trying to introduce change. Yes, this sometimes involves calling out specific people for sexist behavior, but it never, ever involves personal attacks (just a note: spare me links to people on my side insulting people on the other side - those insults are hard-earned, and come as a reaction to the vile behavior they spend so much time on).
But that's not what's meant, when Lee Moore makes his (in my opinion dishonest) attempt to negotiate a ceasefire. Instead he is creating a false equivalence, which I reject. When one group of people are trying to make the movement more inclusive, and the other group is trying to not only stop this, but also to drive the first group out of the movement through harassment, then they are not equal, and to try to create some kind of image of this being two groups, which both have justified grievances (as Lee Moore has said), is dishonest bullshit, and in my opinion, an obvious attempt to give the side with the vile scum some sort of credibility.
Well, I am on record saying that I embrace deep rifts, and I see nothing in Lee Moore's attempt to create false equivalence which would lead me to change my views. There is nothing that the scum on the other fraction could do or say, which would change my view off them and their behavior, and the only way I would accept having anything to do with them, would be if they rejected and renounced everything they stand for at the moment. That would be the "ceasefire" terms I would accept - complete and utter surrender from their side. Somehow I don't think it will happen, but until it does, there is no need to even mention the possibility of a ceasefire.
One more thought: I can't help thinking that Lee Moore knows all this, and his attempt is happening in order to give the impression that the other people have something to offer the movement, and that the movement should not shun them. Well, guess what - I don't think they have anything to offer the movement, and I think that the movement as a whole should take a hard stand against people who behave the way they do. Luckily, it seems like most of the major organizations and conferences in the movement agrees.
A note about comments: On this blog, all comments goes into moderation (mostly due to spam). Any misogynist, racist, homophobic or otherwise vile comments will not be published. Any long, incoherent rants will probably not be published, except perhaps for people to ridicule.
Sunday, December 09, 2012
Rebecca Skloot: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
What can I say about this book, which hasn't been said before? Nothing really. Ever since it came out, it has been highly praised by everyone that has read it, and for good reasons. It is an amazing books, which tackles an incredibly difficult subject with great respect.
Skloot tells the story about Henrietta Lacks, and the immortal cell line that was cultivated from her cells. This is a fairly unknown story, and well worth telling in itself. Skloot goes further though - she also tells us about Lacks' family, and how they have been misinformed and left uncompensated by the scientists, using their mother's cells.
In other words, it is a powerful, moving book about one woman's priceless contribution to mankind, and how her role has been ignored.
Bill Bryson: At Home: A Short History of Private Life
Bryson is a great storyteller, and this book highlights this ability. He tells the stories of everyday things, using his house as the basis, exploring each room in turn.
Richard Wiseman: Paranormality: Why We See What Isn't There
Wiseman is a former magicians turned psychologist, who follows the old tradition of using his conjuring skills to expose how people get fooled, but unlike other magicians, he also puts his knowledge og psychology to good use, explaining how people not only get fooled by others, but also by themselves.
A light and entertaining read, and while people who have read other books on the subject, might find it somewhat basic, it is a good introduction.
Mark Henderson: The Geek Manifesto: Why science matters
Henderson has written a book which calls for better science in policy making and more public involvement by scientists. Enough people agreed with him that each and every English MP received a copy of the book.
The book is a great call to action for people willing to defend skepticism and science. I don't agree with every stance Mark Henderson holds, but I think his basic message of public involvement is important, and a real inspiration.
Michael Specter: Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives
While Henderson's book explains how scientists should do more to inform people about science, Specter's book tells the story of the people misinforming people about science.
The books is not without its flaws, and I think Lindsay Beyerstein's review is fairly well-balanced, and explains it well.
David Michaels: Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health
Another book dealing with denialism, this time the professionals. Michaels book explains how the same companies and people have offered their services, every time some corporations have felt the need for some good, old doubt of what the science tells us, no matter the cost in human misery.
If this books doesn't infuriate you, I don't know what will.
Jeff Ryan: Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America
And now, to something completely different. Ryan's book tells us about the rise of Nintendo, and the fascinating characters involved, both fictional and real.
As an aside: Until I read this book, I had never realized that the man in Donkey Kong was Mario.
James Shapiro: Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?
One of the most enduring literary conspiracy theory around is the idea that Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare. People pushing this conspiracy theory have put forward a number of other candidates, and made numerous arguments for why those people are better candidates than Shakespeare.
Shapiro takes apart each and every one of these candidates, and not only provides good arguments for why they didn't write Shakespeare's work, but also for why William Shakespeare is the best, indeed the obvious, candidate for being the writer of Shakespeare's works.
Challenging your assumptions
Unfortunately, this is learned behavior, and while I have always tried to read primary sources, I wasn't always as good at considering the source, which means that I've picked up some wrong information along the way, without realizing it.
Last Friday I was at a Christmas party at my work, and during that party I had a conversation with another guest, in which I mentioned the "fact" that aspartame had been shown to affect the metabolism of people, if consumed in large quantities.
This is a fact I had picked up some years ago, reading a paper on it.
As luck had it, I was talking with a scientist, who actually knew something about the subject, and she challenged this fact, asking me where I got that from. I, truthfully, replied that I had read it in a paper, so I was fairly confident about this.
Well, she asked me to find that paper for her, and sendt it to her, as she found this fact rather interesting, and contrary to what she knew about the subject.
So, having spent the last couple of hours, trying to find the paper I had read, I have come to the conclusion that it doesn't exist, and that my conversation partner had been quite right in being skeptic.
Oh, I found plenty of articles about the negative effects of aspartame, and even some which looked like scientific papers, but when you looked at them, it turned out that they were anti-aspartame propaganda dressed up to look like science.
All in all, this was probably a valuable experience for me. I will certainly be more careful about stating scientific "facts" that I have picked up along the way, if I am unable to recall exactly where I have read about it. There is so much pseudo-science, and outright anti-science out there, dressing up as science, that it is easy to get fooled, even if you are a skeptic.
As an aside: There certainly is a lot of anti-aspartame propaganda out there. Anyone knows what feeds into that? I seem to recall hearing about the sugar manufacturing companies trying to affect the sales of artificial sweeteners, but given my recent lesson, I know better than relying on my memory when it comes to these things.
Tuesday, October 02, 2012
Sexism in IT, again
I'm currently at the GOTO conference in Aarhus, where I am spending a lovely time going to some great talks and meeting some great people, and I had planned on spending the evening blogging a bit about my impressions from the first couple of days at the conference.
That was until I had lunch with a couple of other people, and I heard about this incident (opens in a new window). Please go there and read the post.
As people who have been around me since I heard about this will attest, I've been pretty damn furious ever since first hearing about it, and then reading Cerian's blogpost (which was posted shortly after I heard about the episode).
I don't think I really have to explain why this incident makes me furious, but for good measure I will try to do so.
First of all, it is an incredible rude way to behave, and even if there were no other considerations, I think that unwarranted rudeness against complete strangers at a conference shouldn't happen.
But of course, it is not just the rudeness - it is the sexism that really gets me angry.
Can anyone even for a second imagine that a guy would have been addressed in that way? Yes, I am sure that there a few men who have been accused of being hired because of their looks, but it is not something people would say about a complete stranger that they had never met before, much less to that complete stranger. I mean, WTF? How can anyone think that it is OK?
Unfortunately, for women, this is a common remark, though not usually said directly to their face (though it happens all too frequently as well).
And it is not just men who makes this sort of remarks.
When we had a meetup of the bloggers/web media people before going to GOTO Aarhus, there was a woman among us who expressed her opinion that among the women studying Computer Science, there were two types:
1) The pretty ones, who got their (male) group members to do the work, and thus, couldn't code.
2) The non-pretty ones, who had to do their own work, and thus, could code.
In her mind, it was obviously not possible to be conventionally pretty, and be able to code.
I could now make some kind of argument about knowing pretty female programmers, but that would just be feeding the sexism. Rather, I'll just say that I cannot fathom why anyone would think it is acceptable to make that sort of comments, yet here there was a woman publicly stating these things. Among people she didn't know.
We seriously have a long way to go. A very long way.
Now, back to the incident. The thing that made me furious about the incident was not the fact that it happened (though that should be enough), but the fact that nobody spoke up when it happened. This is not mentioned in the blogpost about the incident, but I asked Cerian about it, and there wasn't. Or rather, one person said to her that she should ignore it, but nobody said anything to the guy about it.
The GOTO conference has an incredible good track record when it comes to not only getting female speakers, but also getting female attendees (once having to go to court for the right to give a discount to women in order to make the gender less underrepresented - a court battle they won). Yet, even at such a conference, not only does a guy feel entitled to make this sort of remarks, but nobody spoke out against him.
That shows me that the whole culture is still sexist at its core. Not that I think that the people who was there with Cerian are particularly sexist, or even that they agree with the guy, but I do think that they can't see how this sort of remarks are not only incredible hurtful towards Cerian, but also helps create an atmosphere where women, or a sub-group of women, don't feel welcome.
We, the IT sector as a whole, need to change that. Not only because it robs the sector of so much potential talent, but also because it is the decent thing to do.
So, if you see this sort of thing happening, speak up, and make clear that you don't find that sort of stuff acceptable. This is the only way to change the environment, and get rid of the sexism. We need to stop implicitly accepting this behavior by keeping quite, and instead explicitly express our disdain of it.
And it is important to note that it is extra important that we men are very active in doing this, showing our support in changing the environment.
On those words, I think I only have left to thank Cerian for speaking up, and that I hope that there will be some kind of official reaction from the GOTO conference. I know for sure that I will be following up on this issue, so expect more blogposts dealing with sexism, GOTO, and IT in general.
Wednesday, August 01, 2012
This is, of course, absolute bullshit, and I will to explain why that’s the case, while explaining how a good way of trying to deal with underrepresentation works. I call it simply “prioritizing diversity”.
I will start out with two notes:
- The ideas I present here are not mine, but are actually how the policies are implemented in some companies. Very successful companies, I should add.
- This post is not about whether diversity is a good thing or not. It is based on the premise that diversity is something to strive for. I will probably write a post in the future on why this is the case, but this is not it. So, please don’t try to start an argument about this point in the comments.
First of all, the aim is to have the greatest possible diversity in all fields and in all positions. There are some rare positions where this is not possible (I am sure you can all think of some), but in the vast majority of positions, this is not the case.
Second of all, when I talk about diversity, I am talking about diversity in backgrounds, genders, races (a concept which I don’t really accept, but which is a useful shorthand in this case), sexual orientation etc. I am not talking about diversity in opinions, and often not in education. If someone wants to be a doctor, they really should have a medical degree, and be willing to do their job, regardless of e.g. religion. A would-be pharmacists who doesn’t want to sell condoms, is not suited for the job.
I hope we are all still on the same page.
Going back to how to deal with underrepresentation, or rather lack of diversity, it is obvious that any measures need to start with the recruitment process, and be involved in the promotion process.
Starting with the recruitment process, it is the simple truth that for any position, there are a large number of qualified candidates. This means that after everything is said and done, there has to be some kind of arbitrary method of making the final filtering, before choosing who to hire. Well, that arbitrary method might as well be diversity. Who adds the most diversity to the organization? Yes, there might be someone else who has, on paper, better qualifications, but that is only true if you don’t consider adding diversity a qualification. I certainly do. Also, remember, we are talking about prioritizing among qualified people for the job – it doesn’t matter if the others have e.g. better educational qualifications; they all have good enough qualifications.
This should hopefully lead to more underrepresented groups being hired, on basis on their qualifications, which, as I said, includes adding diversity, helping reduce groupthink etc.
Next important step is of course, working with prioritizing diversity when promoting people. This is much trickier. People tend to look at people similar to themselves when looking for material for promotion. Here quotas might be necessary for a period of time, but hopefully, a clearly stated guideline of prioritizing diversity, as well as proper review of proposed promotions to vacant positions, will make this unnecessary.
Perhaps something similar to how I understand the Finnish rules are for gender-disparity in the company Board of Directors. Companies have to have a certain percentage of women in their board. Otherwise, they have to include a statement with the public financial statements explaining why they don’t.
Apparently, very few companies have a problem finding qualified women for the Board of Directors.
How this could be implemented is of course the question, and really depends a lot on the companies involved. But a lot of it, really has more to do with changing the attitude of the company, so everyone understand the value of diversity, and why it should be prioritized.
So, to sum it up, prioritizing diversity will obviously have a negative impact for the in-group, who currently form the recruitment ground for a given field or type of position, but it will not lead to unqualified people getting hired, and it definitely is beneficiary for the people outside the in-group.
A final note: This blogpost owes a huge debt to Rebecca Parsons, who made the idea, of using diversity as a final selection criteria, click for me.
Monday, July 16, 2012
A house divided
“A house divided against itself cannot stand” - Abraham Lincoln June 16, 1858 (based on Mark 3:25)I am sure that I am not the only one who has observed the rifts in the atheist and skeptic community and thought of the above quotation (not only am I sure; I know this for certain, as people have used the quote). I think of it, and think it applies, but I also think of the Danish expression “Lad falde hvad ikke kan stå” (“let fall what can’t stand”), which is originally from a socialist song, Socialisternes March (march of the Socialists), written in 1871 by Ulrich Peter Overby. This expression also applies to the current situation in my opinion.
For those unaware of what the rifts are about, they relate to the sexist atmosphere which exists in the community, especially during conferences. The problems of sexism has been raised by several through the years, but the current crisis is generally considered to have been started by the vile and misogynist reactions to Rebecca Watson making a rather minor point about this in a video about a conference.
Of course, some people will refer to other starting points, but it is really not relevant, since the end result is the same: the atheist and skeptic community is currently divided to a degree which probably hasn’t been seen before. The division is between those who are fighting the sexism and those who are actively fighting the people fighting the sexism (fighting should not be taken literately in either case). There are of course many people involved in neither camp.
The people fighting sexism are working on things such as getting the wider community to acknowledge that there is a problem, getting people to speak out against sexism and misogynist behavior, and getting conferences to create and enforce harassment policies. It should be noted that the people involved in this are not claiming that sexism is worse among atheists and skeptics than among any other group, rather they are saying that it is a problem which should be addressed.
Among the people fighting against sexism are PZ Myers, the pharyngulites (commenters at the Pharyngula blog), Rebecca Watson and the other Skepchicks, most FreeThoughtBlogs bloggers, Amanda Marcotte, and many more. It also seems like most conference organizers including CFI and American Atheists have come down on this side.
Opposing those are prominent people like Abbie Smith/ERV, Paula Kirby, Russell Blackford, a bunch of commentators generally referred to as the slime pitters, thunderf00t, and to a lesser degree Richard Dawkins and DJ Grothe. Given Grothe’s position at JREF and TAM, it should not surprise anyone that TAM is the only prominent conference to not acknowledge the need for a harassment policy which is enforced. This is rather strange, as TAM actually had a harassment policy in place in 2011, but unfortunately enforced it rather badly (part of enforcing is making reports of incidents, which was what TAM failed at – they handled the actual incidents rather well, according to all reports I’ve seen).
It would seem obvious that this is not an ideal situation, and if it continues, it will tear the community apart.
Well, if that’s what’s going to happen, so be it.
I’d rather have two communities than be part of a community which finds sexism and outright misogynistic behavior acceptable.
The two communities can work together on some issues (like fighting anti-vaxxers and creationism) and be on opposite sides when it comes to facing issues related to sexism. Many people in the broader skeptic and atheist movement won’t notice the difference, but those of us who actually care about these issues can choose which side we want to belong to.
There will, of course, be problems involved in this – the rifts are so deep that some of us won’t have anything to do with others. But this is not really an issue for members of the broader movement, who probably won’t notice or care. At most, they will find that some people are no longer invited as speakers at certain conferences, and that certain bloggers either no longer link to each other or write nasty stuff about each other.
So, to sum it up, there are deep rifts in the movement, and I think it is fine. Not only that, I feel more comfortable being in a smaller community within the movement, which doesn’t include people whose opinions and behavior I find repugnant. I can still appreciate the good work done by those people (like I did with e.g. Hitchens) without wanting to be part of the same community.
A note about comments: Currently all comments are moderated. This is due to heavy problems with spam. I will try to publish comments as soon as I become aware of them. Do note that there is zero tolerance for racist, homophobic, misogynist and bigoted comments.
Monday, May 28, 2012
Time traveling polaroids
A random garage sale purchase surprises a 13-year-old with a picture of a relative he had never known.Old Polaroid yields eerie development — a long-dead uncle A random garage sale purchase surprises a 13-year-old with a picture of a relative he had never known.The opening of the story sounded interesting, and I read the story, expecting it being about how a box of photos contained some photos of family member or something. Of course it wasn't. It was about a boy going on garage sales, and finding a polaroid camera:
At the third garage sale, he spotted an old Polaroid Impulse — a cool find, given that a lot of popular online photo filters imitate what these cameras used to do. He bought the Polaroid for $1. But it didn't work when he took it home. After looking at some videos on YouTube, he realized he needed another antique: film. He cracked the camera open and found a bit of history inside: a classic photo of a young guy and girl hanging out.As I read that, I went "WTF???". He "cracked the camera"? Has the journalist writing the story never seen a polaroid? Doesn't he know how it works? There is no way a polaroid would stay in the camera, and there is certainly no way that the chemicals would work and produce the picture so many years later.
What's more: I posted a link to the story on my facebook wall, saying it sounds fishy, and one person mentioned that the clothes and the camera doesn't fit together. The clothes are from the seventies, while the Polaroid Impulse is from 1988. Obivously the camera has the ability to travel in time.
According to the article, the uncle died 23 years ago, which would barely make the 1988 photo possible, but the whole article makes it clear that the photo was taken some time before his death ("The family thinks the girl in the photograph was a high school girlfriend").
Two seconds of reflecting over the story would have told the journalist that it didn't pass the smell test.
Sunday, April 29, 2012
Keira Knightley has said that she is desperate to become a Catholic because she would “just get to ask for forgiveness.”So, basically, it is about Knightly saying that it is easier to be religious because you can ask for forgiveness instead of living with the consequences of what you've done. That's something rather different from what the headline indicates, isn't it? Well, on the plus side, my respect for Keira Knightley has gone up.
The 27-year-old actress, who is an atheist, wished that she believed in God so her sins could be forgiven.
“It sounds much better than having to live with guilt,” a leading daily has quoted her as saying.
“It’s absolutely extraordinary. If only I wasn’t an atheist, I could get away with anything. You’d just ask for forgiveness and then you’d be forgiven,” she added.
Reducing the risk
The Danish National Board of Health has started a new campaign, trying to make people get vaccinated against measles, offering free vaccinations to anyone born after 1973 (people born in 1973 and earlier will have to pay a fee).
The angle of the campaign is to make clear to people that measels isn't a harmless childrens' disease, but is quite dangerous.
The headline of the sign is "Over 100,000 Danes can be hit by an epidemic - are you one of them?"