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18 July 2013 @ 01:32 pm

Now this is funny, especially if you are a member of Tribe Geek:

According to Singh, many people on Facebook list their school as Hogwarts, the wizardry school from the Harry Potter series. But their graph models give Hogwarts a low “schooliness” quotient, partly because those who list it as a school come from so many different places. “We want to preserve user expression. If someone really wants to say that they went to Hogwarts, who are we to say that they didn’t go to Hogwarts?” Singh says. “But that’s not the thing that we want to show on top when we search for schools that people have gone to.”

Wired "How Facebook Builds a Digital Signature for You (and Your World)" 7-8-13


One of my favorite lines in modern rock is in Midnight Oil's "Blue Sky Mine": "Who's gonna save me? Who's gonna save me?/I pray that sense and reason brings us in/(Who's gonna save me? Who's gonna save me?)" It's the irony of this prayer, the emptiness of it. If anything has a chance of saving us, I think it's sense and reason, and yet sense and reason often fail to save us, because they must be shared and put into action, and even then may be insufficient. In the context of the song's narrative, the Blue Sky Mine won't stop their polluting of the land and its workers. Only the rain can wash the streets of the mining town clean, and we're still not sure that the speaker's assertion that this means they've therefore "got nothing to fear" is anything more than forced cheer--a false projected wish-fulfillment.

Do those who reject faith in a conscious and intervening divinity then put that same faith in science? Not any more than they do in the above song. In God is Not Great, Hitchens defines the New Atheist stance in this way: "Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, open mindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake." Well said.

11 May 2013 @ 09:34 pm

This is a terrific quotation from Richard Feynman on the nature of scientific knowledge, and specifically the necessity for skepticism. My paraphrase: There is always room for doubt. If the humanities would like to take something from the sciences, as it seems to want to do sometimes these days given their relative funding and cultural prestige, they ought to begin here:

The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty darn sure of what the result is going to be, he is in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize the ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty– some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain.

For more on this and others of Feynman's ideas concerning scientific responsibility, see Maria Popova's discussion at Brain Pickings.

08 May 2013 @ 01:22 am

A Facebook friend (who happens to be a gay man in love and in a committed relationship) and I were celebrating a recent victory for same-sex marriage, when a friend of his (not shared) posted the following comment:

"But who gives a fuck really? You guys wanna be gay? Well be fuckin gay! Who cares! Our country needs to focus on more important shit than your gay marriages"

I have read this kind of argument before across the internet. Why should same-sex marriage, the case goes, be on anyone's agenda when there are so many more immediate issues with which we should be concerned? The economy, gun violence, healthcare, education, you name it. I'd be the first to agree there are other serious issues on the table, but also think that same-sex marriage rights are one of them.

Here's what I wrote in reply to "But who gives a fuck really?"

"I would say that the following are the reasons why, views expressed not just by me but by many wise people over the course of modernity: We usually dismiss the social justice due another only when we have the luxury of justice for ourselves, and when we do that we not only become guilty of a clear moral wrong and violation of a community bond (evolutionary psychology has shown in animal studies that other social animals share a basic, instinctive sense of fairness, and that this sense of fair play helps to create a bond among groups that helps to ensure mutual survival), but we also do so at our own more immediate peril (the breakdown of social order over time, or even more suddenly in moments of crisis).

Democracy has widened the scope of social justice and should, must, continue to do so. Earlier in our recent history, it brought social quality and justice to people like you and me. In the 19th century in Europe, for example, most men couldn't vote, let alone women or people of color. Only men of birth and great property had any political voice, and they used it to their advantage. In those bad old days, people had to subscribe to a state religion in England and elsewhere, or not be permitted to marry, to attend university, etc. Today, many of us have have the privilege to live diversely without legal and sometimes social prejudice on this and other points because the people who came before us, many of whom had privilege, felt that others deserved it too.

So, on this point, Helen Keller: "Until the great mass of the people shall be filled with the sense of responsibility for each other's welfare, social justice can never be attained."

And if that basic argument for social justice doesn't move you, then the desire for a stable and peaceful society may, this from Frederick Douglass: "Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe." And to make Douglass's point come home, I say look at Islamic extremism, which rises up from the street but is often led by men of privilege who are outlaws within their own country's system of privilege. Rather than blaming that system, they turn on the West as the scapegoat. That point being that keeping a group of people less than, poorer than, and more ignorant than is a seed that bears ill fruit.

That is why we should give a fuck."

But the cool thing here isn't that I saw wrong thinking and was able to blow my danger whistle loudly in its face. The cool thing is that this commenter was moved to explain he wanted people to be able to live and let live. If same-sex couples want to shack up, they should just do it. They don't need a law for that. Thus flying in the face of the reality that civil rights have had to be protected by law, yes, even in modern, pluralistic democracies, and that the border of what is included and excluded from legal protection is contested for important reasons.

The even better news is that in the end the commenter was also moved to like my post. There may be hope for him yet :).


I'm a fan of Melissa McCarthy. I thought her character-acting in Bridesmaids carried the otherwise sappy and formulaic film. And I like a big girl who is beautiful and can hold her own, with a smart mouth and an even smarter attitude. I like that her Playboy centerfold cousin Jenny defends Melissa's talent, at whatever weight Melissa is, and says that Melissa's even funnier than she is. That's generous, and probably true. But as a woman of size, I did not appreciate the physical comedy of Melissa McCarthy's SNL on-stage opening, tripping on red sparkly stripper heels that are way too high for most women, and especially a big woman.

As a big woman, I'm careful of how I move in public. I keep my shirt pulled down. I make sure my pants are pulled up. I choose shoes that are practical. I don't think most think people understand how physically self-conscious being fat makes a person in our culture, because the fat assume that others are judging. We don't assume it in a vaccuum. I was beat up as a kid for being fat. I've been called names in restaurants and on the street. I mean men have hung out of trucks to talk about my imagined sex, in a way that debases, in a mean way, one that feels dangerous -- lots of times, not just once. I've seen women wince when they see me walk into a room, and I've overheard my share of whispers. So to see a fat woman make a spectacle out of herself is painful, whether she meant it as part of the act or not. The fact is, so few big girls make it on stage (or to successful corporate careers, or to graduate degrees, etc., etc.) that it's almost impossible not to see one who does as a symbol for the rest of us.

When Dave Chappelle bugged out of his wildly successful skit comedy series on the verge of a legendary payday in 2005 (I was such a fan), he said something to the effect of being concerned that audiences weren't laughing with black culture but at it. It was one thing for a man who loves and gets black culture to lampoon it (and celebrate it), and another for other people outside the circle to laugh -- that laughter can take a cruel edge, and the comedy can reinforce stereotypes rather than pointing up the range of differences within, and the desire for insiders to ignore what is less savory, for the sake of seeming more to those outsiders who are prone to see the group, the whole group, as less.

That's my worry about the kind of fat lady pratfall comedy we witness on SNL -- if it was intentional. We're used to seeing incompetent fat white men, anxious, fumbling, buffoonish, sometimes dancing in advertisements. Once you begin looking for them, they turn up like bad pennies. Fat women tend to be matronly or always the bridesmaid and never the bride. They usually don't get to do the physical humor, and I am struck that there may be a good reason why. There is a nasty strain of humor about fat woman, and fat girls, about how easy they (we) are, how any halfway-decent looking guy can always trade down for one (or any other of the "ugly" girl stereotypes: aka beer goggles) if he gets desperate enough or drunk enough.

Even if McCarthy's falling wasn't intentional, wasn't part of the comedy...well, that would make it worse, not better. That would give the truth to our inability to carry off things with aplomb, to perform at the same level as other professionals, when we, like every other marginalized group, know damn well we need to do it better. And that more than anything else made me want to reach out to McCarthy and give her a hand so she could stand up with dignity on the SNL and just be funny as hell with her words, with her acting, with anything about the spectacle of her body. I wanted to do anything but see her fall.