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July 2008

Gone fishin'

Teachermoi Grading frenzy time, and after that I've got company, so I probably won't be posting much here until early August. See you then!

In the meanwhile, go to the WWF site and find out which fish you are:

I'm Lee  and I'm a Swordfish.

This is not good news; I like a good swordfish steak now and then, and they're sort of an endangered species. Help!

Thanks to Deep Sea News for the link.

The Lost Female Apostle

LibrariangI just finished reading a couple of books I put in the sidebar a week or so ago about the female apostle Junia. That's right, female apostle. Didn't know there was one? Neither did I. I ran across references to her while looking up something else and was intrigued. One of my biggest problems with the religion I grew up in was that we were supposedly all "ministers," meaning we all could teach outside the church, but only the men could teach inside the church. That's based on the scripture in 1 Cor. 14:34-36, which, it turns out, just may be a non-Pauline interpolation, though it appears in all the texts, though in different places, it turns out. In light of these verses, it seems obvious that there couldn't possibly be a woman apostle, so magically, there wasn't.

But let me back up a minute. The two books are Rena Pederson's The Lost Apostle: Searching for the Truth About Junia and Eldon Jay Epp's Junia: The First Woman Apostle. The first is a general reader's version of the same kind of curious search I'm engaging in. Pederson is a seasoned reporter, not a scholar, but does a good job of outlining the issues and the controversies, as well as describing how other women mentioned as deacons or servants of the church were slowly erased and pushed from view, including Junia. Epp's book is extremely scholarly, and it helps to have a background in both grammar and textual criticism. You can squeak by without knowing Latin and Greek, but that wouldn't hurt either. In 81 very closely reasoned pages, he demolishes the support for the arbitrary and sudden metamorphosis of Junia's feminine name in Romans 16:7 into the masculine and highly improbable Junias. The reasons, it turn out, are almost entirely cultural bias and late 19th and early 20th century cultural bias at that, not those pesky misogynist medieval monks, even. Epp connects the arguments about the possibly interpolated text in 1 Cor. 14:34-36, with Junia's "sex change" quite convincingly, connecting them as part of a gradual move to erase the vital parts in the early church hierarchy that women played, and thus keep them out of positions of similar service in the contemporary church, whether it was the contemporary medieval or modern church. After reading both of these books, the ordination of women seems the only logical step that could possibly be taken.

Shocking, I know. Even more shocking when I realized that the Bible I had used my whole life had been based on this biased text. Junia was a man in the Bible I had always thought of as a very good translation, one that restored the 7,000-some-odd occurrences of God's name that had been replaced with his job title.

In most ways, it is a good translation, careful yet colloquial and easy to understand, unlike the more poetic but problematic King James Version. But one of the things Epp's book did was give me a clearer understanding of just how that Bible translation was produced. I'd always known that the translators of my version had gone back to the original manuscripts and started from scratch, but I didn't understand what "going back to the original manuscripts" actually meant.

There are around 500 manuscripts and papyri (manuscripts made of papyrus reed rather than cotton rag paper or vellum, both of which are far more durable) copied by various scribes throughout history, from the first century through the Middle Ages. There are scribal quirks and variations in the texts, sometimes really significant ones, and it is ultimately impossible to state without a doubt which versions are the definitive ones. Translators and scholars have been able to make a pretty good stab at deciding which are closest, but there's no THIS IS IT! manuscript. Transcription and compilation proceeds by textual analysis, paleography, chemical studies, carbon dating, comparison with archaeological evidence, etc.

The sources used by the translation committee that produced the Bible I grew up with were themselves first collated, transcribed, and printed by other committees of scholars, following in the footsteps of previous scholars of various ability and merit. The real problem arises because languages change over time, and you're talking about 2,000 years of history here, from the time the manuscripts were first handwritten in Greek, Aramaic, Syriac and Coptic. For the first 700 years after Jesus, for instance, Greek was unaccented, which is one of the ways the gender of nouns was determined. Manuscripts were also written in all capitals ("majuscules") or all lowercase ("minuscules"), often with the words pretty jammed together, so YOURTEXTMIGHTLOOKSOMETHINGLIKETHIS, or somethinglikethis. Good luck with that. No wonder scribes often went blind. So turning these manuscripts into easily usable modern transcriptions (never mind the translation bit yet) is tricky.

Plus, unlike English, names in Greek and Latin have cases as well as gender, so their endings vary. This was one of the things I struggled with mightily when I was learning and translating Old English, which is actually way more like, say, German, than modern English. You're constantly asking yourself if something is masculine or feminine and what ending it gets. In this case, the names in Romans (duh!) were originally Latin being translated into Greek forms, and then often back to Latin (like for the Vulgate version).

This is where the problem with Junia's name arose. I won't go into the technicalities of it; you can read the books for that. But suffice to say her name was accepted as female by the earliest of the church fathers, for about the first thousand years. Then her name slowly transformed into the masculine Junias, and then back again to Junia here and there, though in the printed transcriptions used by the committee that translated the version I'm familiar with, it was arbitrarily, against any textual evidence (e.g., that the male name Junias exists nowhere else, though Junia as a woman's name appears at least 250 times) decided that Junia was a man. Why? Well, because it's obvious there couldn't be a female apostle. Just that.

Epp's argument, short as it is, seems definitive to me, not as a woman, but as someone who's done both textual criticism and translation (though not of Greek, and only a little tiny bit of Latin). It must have seemed definitive to the latest revisers of the manuscripts at fault, because they've changed it back to Junia, acknowledging her as a female apostle. The problem is that the original sex change existed in the printed transcriptions (as opposed to the original manuscripts) for the last 70 years or so, and crept into just about every Bible translated from them, including mine, just when the issue of ordaining women was becoming or about to become very hot. Considering how long people hang on to their Bibles, it's liable to remain incorrect for another 70 years, giving the erroneous impression that women were silent and powerless in the early church, when that was not the case.

What saddens me is that I would never have known any of this had I not defied conventions in my church and gone to college where I was introduced to both textual criticism and the shallow edge of Biblical scholarship. Though we were always encouraged to study our Bible deeply and there were plenty of supplementary materials put out by the church to do so, none of them mentioned the wider world of Biblical scholarship except briefly in passing, when it suited them. Certainly, little of that filtered down to the congregations. To be fair, I think most Biblical scholarship happens in fairly rarefied air in the academy; it's complex and requires years of study in dead foreign languages. But I think for years I was under the impression that our supplementary materials were "original" research. I wonder now how much of it was selectively cadged from other scholars. This isn't to say there aren't some smart and learned people in the upper echelons of my former faith. But I'm pretty sure none of them participate in the scholarly exchange of ideas and arguments, and I'm not even sure where some of them were trained, i.e., where or if they went to college or hold degrees.

Now that society is changing enough to accept women in so many other positions of power (albeit still reluctantly), it's a shame that this impression remains in the church. It has robbed itself of the unique viewpoint and skills of half the population. No wonder so many people like me are abandoning ship. Whose truth have we been fed?

Talking the Talk and Walking the Walk

Sciencereligion About a year ago, I signed up for the Old Fart's version of Facebook at a social network called TBD. I'm not real fond of social networking as a general rule, but it was in its early stages and I thought I'd give it a whirl. As social networks go, it's pretty unobtrusive and most of the people on it actually work and have lives, so you aren't alerted every time someone scratches their ass (thank God!). There's no "poking," few widgets, and actually some fairly interesting people. Maybe that's because they're all my age.

The discussion groups were just starting up and I got in on the ground floor of one of them, as a happy coincidence. It was called "Losing My Religion." The initiator said she'd grown up Catholic and was now disillusioned and "cynical" about religion and was she the only one who'd become that way as she'd gotten older?

I hadn't yet made the final leap I've made here, but I was teetering on the precipice and was the first person to respond, with this:

You're definitely not alone in this boat. I was raised a [redacted] but I never really felt my heart was in it, and I was never very good at at (or good enough, anyway). I've still got a pretty strong belief in some kind of diety, but I'm really not sure what. I don't really care for the label agnostic though; I still feel there's some unfathomable intelligence out there that we've placed into little boxes for our convenience and because it's bigger than we are. Lately I've gotten interested in Buddhism, since it seems to mesh with what I know about science better than other religions.

I don't think it was my own mortality so much that made me question what I'd been taught as it was just a slow realization that I'd grown out of those clothes and they were binding me now. Guilt? Oh yeah. I think that's inevitable because organized religion relies on guilt to maintain control. And there's sadness too. It's a loss of belonging to a community, even if you don't really fit in with them very well. I feel now like it's the constant search that matters, the constant questioning of the self and the external world, striving to be a better person, and to treat others well, to make the world a little better while I'm here. If that isn't a definition of worshipping God, I'm not sure what is.

That was almost a year ago. The discussion kept going, but I left it after a short while because it turned into a kind of rancorous mutual baiting of atheists and fundamentalists. It kept going in my absence and as of a short while ago, had 1721 Comments and 221 members. I've dipped my toes back into it recently and while the trolls and the baiters are still there, I hope I've grown sufficiently in the meanwhile to offset them a little instead of imitating them, as I found myself doing originally. Back then, my own change was too fresh, too scary, for me to be objective or calm about it. I hope I'm settled enough with my decision that I can keep a cool head, because there are some really interesting folks there, talking about chaos theory, scientific objectivity, the nature of faith, the nature of religion, the nature of spirituality, and nature of truth, church history and other topics I'm interested in.

I've been pondering the presence of the baiters and name-callers on that list and hadn't been able to figure it out until Jen alerted me to the PZ Myers kerfluffle. In case you're not a science junkie, PZ Myers is a biology professor and the author of a blog called Pharyngula, who delights in baiting creationists. He's been chewing on his foot in a post about communion wafers which I will merely link to but which has enraged large numbers of people to the point of death threats (no verbal statement excuses death threats, sorry. That's just wrong.). Even the science blogosphere has been in an uproar about it, since PZ is notorious for stirring shit with religious people. This is the kind of behavior (if not quite as extreme) that I saw on our discussion list that turned me off. PZ's fellow scientists came out in support of his right to free speech, but several have given him the what-for to varying degrees for said shit-stirring. There was even a lovely Platonic dialogue involving Golden Retrievers and Dobermans over at Uncertain Principles about it, which nicely counters another post I was more disturbed by over at Cosmic Variance, written by my friend Jen's husband Sean, who is a happy atheist.

Sean says, for one thing, "[A communion wafer] doesn’t turn into anyone’s body, and there’s nothing different about a “consecrated” wafer than an unconsecrated one — the laws of physics have something to say about that." This just makes me sigh and shake my head. The laws of physics have nothing to do with it. While I've never believed in the transubstantiation myself, I understand that it's about symbolism and desire not laws of nature. The laws of physics argument is invalid because it is addressing the wrong question. It's asking how and if the wafer becomes the body of Christ when the relevant question is why and when. Physics doesn't do well with why until there is an actual process involved, and it's not good with symbolism that isn't mathematical. There are conflicting paradigms here and the tools for one paradigm don't work well in the other.

But this was the statement he made that really bothered me:

My hope is that humanists can not only patiently explain why God and any accompanying metaphysical superstructure is unnecessary and unsupported by the facts, but also provide compelling role models for living a life of reason, which includes the capacity for respectful disagreement.

I don't usually comment on Cosmic Variance because it's pretty technical and often beyond my capabilities, though Sean is one of the great explainers of extremely complicated physics problems. Here, though, I felt I had something to say:

My difficulty with both sides of the religion/secular humanism argument is that both treat the other like a problem to be fixed. Religious belief is not something to be eradicated like smallpox anymore than secular humanism is. There are extremists on both sides, crazies in both camps, social problems that arise from both world views. Both points of view have a value and sometimes they even (gasp!) co-exist quite comfortably. The only reason mockery is called for in any argument is as a corrective mirror, but it seldom functions that way. People don't like to be mocked, so they tune it out and the message is lost.

Listening to arguments like these, I'm reminded of the opera lovers I know, so many of whom are completely convinced that, "of course you'll love this! You just have to hear this person, that aria, this conductor, see that production! It's so wonderful! How could you not love it? I love it!" Opera is a matter of taste, beliefs are a matter of conscious choice. No amount of sincere insistence of any kind is going to change either. Changes in belief happen from the inside out.

And from the disinterested distance of someone who's in the process of making changes in my beliefs, both sides of this argument sound too damn much alike.  Richard Dawkins has not done the secular humanists any favors. He's your Oral Roberts.

Sean closes his post with: "Even if both atheists and believers are susceptible to the temptations of tribalism, that doesn’t make them equivalent; the atheists have the advantage of being right on the substance." And I sputtered when I read this, too, because that's a hell of an assumption to make. Right on the substance of what? Of physics? Okay. Of theology? Not so much. To use a little math-speak, these are non-congruent, non-intersecting sets. And how is this better than the fundamentalists saying, "we're right because we've got the Bible"? To argue you're right on the substance, you have to first have substance in common. That's missing here.

What's missing also is the idea that reason alone, any more than belief alone, is insufficient. Sean is setting up reason, basically, as an equal substitute for spirituality. Remember those B-movies with the disembodied brains (representing pure reason, pure logic, pure science)? Were those brains ever the good guys? There's something in us that knows reason and logic is not enough.

The more I poke around in these areas, the more convinced I am that they can co-exist and do have something to say to each other that's beyond "you're an asshole," and "No, you're an asshole." Some of the first modern humanists, were, after all, churchmen; some of them were burned at the stake for it. But we'll never learn from each other if we can't play nice in the same sandbox. Like Sean, I hope I can be if not a voice of reason, at least oil on the waters.

Fear Leads to Anger

Fearangermoi I dropped a dish today and smashed it on the floor. This happens more often than I like, lately, this dropping things. I've got small hands with short fingers and that often makes it awkward to hold anything that isn't small. The thing is, though, that I used to have what I call as "jar-opener hands." if there was a jar Mom couldn't get open, either Dad or I could almost always get it going, without the benefit of breaking the seal first. If he or I could get a grip on it, it would yield.

The day after I came home from scattering my Dad's ashes in the woods behind our house, I woke up with such an ache in the bones of my hands, from wrist to the tips of my fingers, that I could hardly flex them. The knuckles were swollen and I had to be extra careful picking things up. Those marvelous opposable thumbs humans have weren't working so well, for some reason. The pain lasted for about six weeks and then disappeared, but since then, my hands ain't what they used to be. Arthritis runs in my family and one of my thumb knuckles and the last knuckles on both index fingers are already showing signs of it. I remember my grandmother's bent, knobby hands lacemaking with a tiny crochet hook when I was a little kid and my Mom's hands, though longer fingered, looked the same in later years. My Aunt Laura's hands look just like Gramma's. It never stopped either of them from creating (strokes put an end to Mom's painting and needlepoint), but every time I drop something it makes me furious. Screaming, cussin', frothing-at-the-mouth enraged.

Part of this reaction is echoes of my mother's frustration with herself in her later years, after the strokes, and with Dad, who was always pretty heavy-handed and occasionally, as we all do, broke stuff. Mom had these unrealistic expectations that things would last forever: her dishes would never break, her carpet would never be spilled on, her clothes would always be immaculate, her appliances would never wear out. This only works if you never use anything, which she frequently refused to, with nice clothes you bought her, or with dishes. She had that bad habit of keeping things for "good," e.g., when Prince Philip was stranded in a  snowstorm and stayed the night. We would have broken out the Limoges and silver plate then, the good quilts, the Hudson Bay blankets, the linen tablecloths. Alas, no sufficiently illustrious personages appeared in Greenbush while she was alive. Instead, the Post Office took care of the Limoges as Dad never could or would have.

But part of that cussin' and screamin' and stompin' around is just fear. It's fear of my own mortality creeping up on me, fear of losing my ability to type (which has definitely deteriorated already) and thus write, to being unable, like Mom, to do the art I love, to earn a living. I react the same way when I can't see the f-ing agate type on my black stereo components. I can't imagine anything scarier than not being able to see to read, so it enrages me when I can't.

It took me a long time to understand where at least some of my quick temper came from, that some of it was not just a judgmental voice in my head or sheer impatience but my own very human fears. It's typically geeky of me that one of the things that tipped me off was the Jedi saying "fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering" from Episode 1. Before that, it was Spider Robinson's narrator, Jake, in the Callahan books saying (on their way to Key West) that "anger is just fear dressed in drag." (And if you haven't read the Callahan books yet, as Jake would also say, lucky you, to have that in front of you!) The more I thought about that, the more I realized it was true, and wondered why nobody else had ever bothered to point that out to me. Because once you realize that, it's a lot easier to short circuit.

For years, anger was just a bad personality trait I need to overcome. I shared a quick temper with my dad, while mom's was slow-burning but long. Dad and I, by contrast, were both impatient and easily frustrated, especially with machinery and technology. I still bang things around when they don't work right, even things with solid-state components. That usually doesn't help much, but it's satisfying. That anger is largely the fear of loss of control, the inability to fix things. One difference between my dad's temper and mine is that I worked hard for years to keep mine confined to private moments and not let it loose when people were around. I concluded pretty early that letting it out of the bag in public just made one look like an idiot.

I still get frustrated with things, but my patience with people has expanded exponentially, unless you are intentionally being an obstructive idiot, like the post office manager who spent 20 minutes holding up a line of people waiting for packages while he argued with another customer, then just walked away and left us hanging for another five until someone else came to the window. Then my New Yorker personality kicks in. But with students, old people, pretty much everyone else, I've gotten far more patient than I've ever been. But, Dude, don't scare me. What happens then isn't pretty:

I had a friend staying with me once, back when I lived in Brooklyn, who lost herself in the subway station when I thought we were standing next to each other. She was one of those kind of dreamy people who tend not to pay a lot of attention to things, which is not such a good way to be in New York. On her second or third day here, we were standing on a platform at Atlantic Avenue, waiting for a train together so I could show her how to get somewhere, since she had no idea where she was going and couldn't figure out the subways. The train pulled in, relatively empty like the platform, and I got on, sat down, looked over for her and . . . she'd disappeared. I looked frantically up at the next car, then at the one behind, then jumped off the train, not knowing where she was. I looked frantically around the platform for her, jumping on and off the train a couple of times. I was completely freaked out. Atlantic Avenue was not such a nice station then, and who knew what might have happened to her? How could she just disappear like that? When the train pulled out, I saw her across the tracks on the opposite platform. I had stepped onto the train and she had lost sight of me, immediately gone down the stairs, under the tracks and up on the other side to look for me. Why the hell she had wound up over there was a mystery to me.

My response? Yeah, you guessed it. Cussin' and screamin'. So much so that a guy standing near her on the opposite platform yelled "Whoooo-eeee! Let her have it!" Well, that was enough to embarrass me into shutting up. Even then, I realized all that anger was coming out of fear: fear of losing someone I was in some way responsible for, fear of what might have happened to her, fear of the unknown. I sent her out the next day with a subway and street map and told her she was on her own; she was old enough to be responsible for herself.

The dropping-the-plate snit is the same thing: a fear of the loss of control of my own life. There's only me here; if my sight goes bad, how will I read? If my hands fail me, who will open my jars?

I will, dammit, until I can't anymore, then I'll buy a gadget to do it or get an octopus or something. I'll get decent glasses, good lamps, remind myself to pay more attention to edges, buy a goddamn gilhooley (these things are great!). In the meantime, I'm going to try to learn to step back, accept, and breathe through the fear instead of getting mad. There's not much else to do, really. I don't wanna give give myself a stroke getting pissed off over getting old. That's really stupid.

A Little Learning . . .

RadicalmoiI cannot remember a time when it wasn't assumed that I'd go to college. Two of my older cousins on my mom's side had gone (both became teachers) but only a younger cousin on my Dad's side wound up going. The Kottners were not much on schoolin', especially for girls, though my Dad was a huge history buff and managed to teach a colleague of mine a few things about Civil War battles. It took him a while to come around to the idea that his daughter might become a "pointy headed intellectual" and he continued to razz me about writing free verse until nearly the day he died. (I finally told him I wouldn't tell him how to fix jet engines if he'd stop telling me how to write poems.)

The upshot of always being encouraged to study and to learn is that I grew to love it. I came home every day and shared something new I'd learned with my mom, whether it was about the process of eutrophication we could see happening in the lake across the street as septic systems leaked phosphate laundry detergents into it, or just some new word. I found the life of the mind entertaining and fulfilling. My favorite question became "why?" And one thing I will say for the church I grew up in, they taught me like no school could how to study, and how to do textual criticism. There is no field of literary studies so contentious or difficult as Biblical exegesis. But it's fascinating stuff. There are still days I'm sorry I didn't go into theology.

When I first got to college as an undergrad, I felt like the proverbial kid in the candy store. Unlimited books! Classes in everything! Psychology! Medieval history! Invertebrate biology! Writing! I hardly knew where to start. Registration was torture each semester, not because I couldn't get the classes I wanted (that rarely happened with a student population of 600) but because I couldn't make up my mind. The most frustrating thing about being a biology major was that I could take so few of the other tantalizing classes that beckoned me. I wanted to know everything about everything, and this was my big chance. Woohoo!

I think like most undergrads who are the first in their families to go to college, I was also a bit overawed by all the educated people around me. It took me quite a while, and enrollment in a Ph.D. program myself, to realize that pieces of paper do not make one erudite or even intelligent. As Rob said in an earlier conversation, "It just means I've read a lot of books." That was a definite blow to my rosy view of academe, if not the intelligentsia. On the other hand I learned to find smart, thinking people everywhere, in class and out, possessing official pieces of paper and without. In a lot of ways, I think I learned as much from the round table discussions over beer and burgers at the Peanut Barrel during my graduate school career as I did in class. Tossing around all those ideas and philosophies in that free-for-all atmosphere with some really intelligent colleagues allowed me to begin to formulate some of my own, as well as to come to some rather startling conclusions that I didn't quite trust for a long time.

One of these, which formed while I was teaching science writing and the written work of scientists, was the slow realization that Science (I always want to put that in radioactive Italics, for some reason) actually wasn't terribly objective, as I'd been lead to believe all these years, and that it had infected the humanities with some of the worst of its characteristics. Like what? Logic, for one. Art is often not very logical or rational. It serves no utilitarian purpose, it has no higher goal than itself. Art just is. It may or may not have a message, or you may only think it does or doesn't. Its goal is not to explain the world to you. If it has any purpose, I think, it might be to teach us more about ourselves. I used to think its purpose was to make us better humans, but that's too much of a burden for anything to bear but each of us as individuals. Anyway, it's completely possible to live without it, but it's a mean, brutish sort of existence. Everyone, I dare say, requires some kind of art in their life, whether it's low-brow television or high-brow historical rhetoric.

Because it has no real purpose, looking at Art (or humanities like history) through the lens of logic distorts it. Its purposelessness becomes offensive, wasteful. We see this all the time in school budgets. The millage fails and what goes? Not sports. Art. Music. Theater. Sports builds character, teaches cooperation, hones competitiveness, mirrors the hard knocks of the "real," adult world. Art just looks or sounds pretty. There was even a study some time ago that proved its utter uselessness in raising test scores.

Well, duh.

Art is not about data, and yet it is measured that way all the time, critically, monetarily, philosophically. For a while, theorists of literature whom I shall not name were routinely analyzing literary works by running them through a computer and totting up their word usage frequency and sentence structure. What this said about the literary work in question is anybody's guess. There's no DNA to sequence in literary works, despite what some critics might think. Literature and history are about human activities and interactions, not mindless chemicals.

But I digress. The real revelation to me was that Science was actually not objective or value free. One of the things that graduate school does is introduce you to the world of so-called original thought. It's one of the requirements of getting a Ph.D., actually, that you write a thesis that will add to the body of knowledge about your particular subject. As a result, there's a lot of territorial marking in pursuit of those three letters. Generally, publishing an article in a recognized journal outlining your thoughts, or a portion of them, will do the trick. "Oh, she's working on minstrels in Piers Plowman," one thinks, reading a short paper on the subject in Speculum. It's a way of saying "hands off this area until my book/thesis comes out." Pissing on the boundaries, so to speak.

Now, there's not much riding on that particular subject (I should know; it was mine for a while) except one person's future dissertation, publications, and possible career, but in science the stakes can be much, much higher. Original research in science usually costs millions of dollars. Students often ride the coattails of their professors onto publications in significant journals by lab-monkeying for them, gaining co-authorship and mad lab skillz by doing so. Unlike the humanities, science is very often a team effort and while you may be participating in someone else's research, it can make or break your own career, even if it's not your original idea (ask the folks who decided to go into cold fusion). Plus, you may be able to claim spin-off ideas as your own. What's really riding on scientific research right now is Money (another radioactive noun). Money, plum positions at national or academic labs, multi-million dollar patents (in the case of much biotech research) and fame.

Yup, fame.

Albert Einstein-sized fame, sometimes, and the influence that goes with it. Hard to resist. Not many people in the Humanities get a taste of that (Stanley Fish, maybe), but it's not that uncommon in science. Watson & Crick. Stephen Hawking. Carl Sagan. Richard Feynman. Robert Gallo and Luc Montagnier.

If you're wondering about that last pair, they're the guys who discovered the AIDS virus, one at the National Cancer Institute, one at the Pasteur Institute, more or less simultaneously as they had shared samples and research. Robert Gallo, though, gets the press, because he jumped the gun, contrary to agreements between NCI and PI. Three years later, Montagnier says, "It could have happened differently, but everybody has their personality."

And there's the reason that science is not objective.

We talked a lot about the history of science, especially post-WWII in America, at those round table discussions in the Peanut Barrel, but it took a while for me to realize what big grant money had done to both independent labs like Bell Labs, and academic research labs like the University of Chicago's. Scientific research started to shift from knowledge for its own sake to R&D for profit. It's not so much that the amount of money thrown at them corrupted research institutes, but it made science a whole new game, one much more likely to be pursued for the sake of grants and product than just for the sake of knowledge. That gap between pure and applied research widened, with pure research becoming harder and harder to justify in a monetary economy. That was one of the beauties of Victorian science: its independent, dillentante-ish nature. Undisciplined and unsystematic as it often was, subjects were at least studied for sheer love of knowledge.

This is not to say science still doesn't ask all those big questions: how did the universe get here? How did life develop? What can we do to make it longer and better? But the moment money gets involved (pardon my cynicism) people's not-so-best natures come out. And the presence of potential fame, even if it's in a smallish pond, is just as distracting. And it adds an extra layer of motive, one that's not very pure and more likely to influence outcomes than the pure search for knowledge. When the renewal of your grant depends on positive results (even though negative ones are just as illuminating), it's harder to admit your idea might be wrong. That's just human nature.

I hear outraged screams of protest in the background already. Scientists aren't like that! They don't falsify results! Especially not for such base reasons as money and fame or politics. The truth means everything to them!

Yep, I'm sure it does. But so do their individual reputations. And there's no getting away from those outside influences like politics. Pity the poor scientists at the EPA, who've been going round and round with the Bush administration about Global Warming for the last eight years. As an aside, it's interesting that only the conservative Wall Street Journal (subscription required) has pointed out how vicious the fight between EPA scientists and the Administration has been, and made it clear that the repudiation of the most recent report is a political maneuver, not a scientific one:

The EPA document was written to respond to a Supreme Court order: The court instructed the agency to decide whether greenhouse gases are a danger to public health or welfare. Instead, the final document took no position on the court's question -- yet escalated the extraordinary battle between the agency and the White House. The White House rejected an earlier draft that did find a danger to welfare, which would trigger application of the strict rules of the Clean Air Act to regulating greenhouse gases.

Listen, kids, no matter how many times you say I believe in Science, scientists are human too. All those human qualities—greed, fear, ego—figure into it as they do into anything else humans do. That's why fraud (nicely termed "misconduct" in scientific circles) happens. Again, and again, and again.

So where does this leave us if we can't trust Science?

Where it leaves us with everything else: using our own discernment. You don't buy a flat screen TV without checking out the best brand and best buy (and if you do, well, need I say more?). Do the same with science. You don't have to be a scientist to understand the consequences of research. There are plenty of good explainers out there who will be happy to help you sift the wheat from the chaff and boil down the salient points. A little scientific literacy will also help protect you from crackpots and extremists, like the anti-vaccination people who would like to expose us all to the joys of rubella, smallpox, whooping cough and scarlet fever again because they seem to think, despite the lack of scientific evidence that vaccines cause autism. Learn what scientists mean by "correlation is not causation," i.e., some things are just coincidence. No, really. Remind yourself that statistics are only useful in describing the behavior of large populations or datapoints, not individuals.

In short, be informed. Think for yourself. Don't let somebody else do it for you. At its core, that's the real goal (or should be) of education.

Boning Up: Better Late Than Never

Badgirl_moiSo you're not the only one with a summer reading list. The FBI has one too. Seems a number of the are attending summer school and boning up on their Arabic Studies. I shouldn't make fun of this, but I'm a little cranky from waking up from a dream this morning that I was on the FBI watch list just for wearing a Question Authority button on my jacket. Don't know what they'd think about my "Who Would Jesus Bomb?" button. And aren't they supposed to hire experts in these areas? I mean, I know about professional development and all that, but this reading list makes me a little nervous about general competence.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation requires the following items, Exact Match Only, to the following: 
WHAT WENT WRING [sic]: THE CLASH OF BET ISLAM, 30, EA; [which I suspect is really "The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East"]

Apparently there's some computer training on the curriculum and a writing class or two. Nice to see a little literature thrown in there, too. And that refresher course on the Criminal Code and Federal rules. I hope all these are just for the Newbies.

[Tip o the hat to Book Patrol and Resource Shelf]

Brief Interlude of Silence

WhamoiI'll probably be off-line for a little bit here as I'm having some minor but embarrassing surgery today. Here's hoping the pain meds will be good. Spawn of Blogorrhea will go on as planned, as I've pre-written several posts for it, but since this is a more personal journal, you're just going to have to wait. Don't look for e-mails either. I don't think I'll be sitting much . . .

Rave On

PeacegirlLike just about everybody else who sees it, I can't get enough of this video. Celtic music does this to me. I can't tell you how often I've danced around my apartment to jigs and reels. And George Michael. And Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill." And the Clash. Bless Matt Harding for reminding me.

More time dancing, less time killing each other. Everybody Snoopy Dance! Thanks to Jen-Luc for the heads up.

Your Call May be Monitored . . .

RadicalmoiWhat else could you call this post? What else would you title a protest against the newly passed right to spy on its citizens that Bush's cronies and the chickenshit Dems in the Senate just handed the Imperial arm of the government?  What else could you title a post about the sudden dismissal of more than 40 pending lawsuits against the telecom companies for aiding and abetting said then-illegal spying by our own government? Nothing like breaking the law first, then rewriting it to retroactively cover your ass, which is exactly what this is.

Not only may your call be monitored, but your Internet transactions as well, though these are more difficult to trace. And if you think the Government won't actually misuse this new power, then you need to take a look at why the original law requiring search warrants for wiretapping was put in place in the late 1970s. As Julian Sanchez points out in his recent Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times,

The original FISA law was passed in 1978 after a thorough congressional investigation headed by Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) revealed that for decades, intelligence analysts -- and the presidents they served -- had spied on the letters and phone conversations of union chiefs, civil rights leaders, journalists, antiwar activists, lobbyists, members of Congress, Supreme Court justices -- even Eleanor Roosevelt and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The Church Committee reports painstakingly documented how the information obtained was often "collected and disseminated in order to serve the purely political interests of an intelligence agency or the administration, and to influence social policy and political action."

I don't know about you, but I would consider myself, if not an activist, at least anti-war and pro-civil rights. If blogging counts as activism, then yeah, I guess I am one. The revision of FISA leaves the likes of me, ordinary, innocent if sometimes rabble rousing citizens vulnerable to the abuses of an overly nosy government. Prior to FISA, the FBI and other intelligence agencies, including the New York City Police Department were spying on an ex-president's wife and duly appointed Supreme Court justices, as well as civil rights activists. They've gone right back to it under this regime. Now they can do it legally.

Worried yet? You should be.

Why did Obama vote in support of this? (Sen. Clinton voted against it.) More importantly, if he's elected, will he urge Congress to revisit it and reinstate the already workable guidelines previously in place to protect citizens' right to privacy? McCain sure won't.

Live Long and/or Prosper

ChowdownmoiI wanna be Kate Harding when I grow up. She has a real talent for going straight for the throat, clamping her teeth on it, and shaking it hard until it whimpers and gives in. In yesterday's rant about what Shapely Prose refers to as the OBESITY EPIDEMIC OOGA BOOGA, she points out that you know, it's not just bad eating habits, people. It's an entire life style devoted to keeping the ants pacified and soporific. Instead of just offering free fruits and veggies for school children, there's so much more that could be done:

. . . Local, organic produce for all my friends! While you’re at it, bring back gym class and train future phys ed instructors to focus on encouraging the joy of movement instead of forcing everyone to move their bodies in exactly the same way, regardless of any pain (physical and/or emotional) it causes! Subsidize exercise facilities until they’re affordable for everyone! Create more bike paths! Clean up local bodies of water so everyone can swim for free! Build cities on the scale of human bodies instead of cars, and keep the streets safe enough for everyone to walk around! Ban high fructose corn syrup! Keep fast food and soda and junk food corporations out of the schools! Raise the minimum wage and shorten working hours so people have more time to cook and be active! KNOCK YOURSELVES RIGHT THE FUCK OUT creating an environment that makes it easier for everyone to eat a variety of fresh foods and get plenty of exercise!

But no, we have sedentary work that keeps us cooped up for 8-10 hours a day and raises our blood pressure in the getting to and from it while still sitting on our asses. We make synthetic, crappy food cheaper than real food. My favorite part of the this rant is the "raise the minimum wage and shorten working hours so people have more time to cook and be active." But no, our jobs demand more and more of our time, of our lives, and we load our kids up with homework and supervised, closely scheduled after school activities (if you're middle class and above) or unsupervised TV watching (if you're not and have to work long hours or 2 jobs to make ends meet) to keep them out of our hair. There's not much about modern life that makes it at all like the life our bodies were built for, from the artificial food we eat, and its great abundance and high caloric count, to the constant sitting on our asses and need for artificial types of exercise (cuz that's what going to the gym or running is: 100% exercise for its own sake). And then we shame the people whose bodies haven't magically adapted within a few short generations to this major environmental change, completely ignoring the idea of different types of metabolisms.

Which brings me to the excellent post by Sweet Machine, another of Shapely Prose's contributors, who reminded me of why I've been so uncomfortable with the whole fat phobia thing all my life—I mean aside from the self-hate it so often involves: it's the habit that Susan Sontag pointed out we have a habit of associating diseases with moral failures or certain personality types, and of blaming people for their illnesses, for  "not taking care of themselves," for giving themselves diabetes, heart disease, blocked arteries, strokes and, goddammit, dying on us! How the fuck dare they do that! Here's a little news flash, doctors and the people they try to con:

Everybody dies.

So far, nobody has yet survived the rigors of life indefinitely. There's no stopping the process of dying, at least not right now. Nobody has found either the Fountain of Youth or the Cure for Death. He's even coming for poor Terry Pratchett, who's lampooned him so extensively and brilliantly. (Seriously, if you haven't read any Terry Pratchett yet, lucky you to have that to look forward to. Start now.) That must be why he's been diagnosed with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer's at the age of 59: it's Mort's revenge for being made fun of. Death happens. Sickness happens. Accidents happen.

The latest bit of utter stupidity is the new recommendation to put fat kids as young as 8 on cholesterol-lowering statin drugs to ward off future heart disease. So they can die of something else, eventually. First of all, if this does not smell like a new money-making scam from the desperate halls of Big Pharma, I don't know what does. Secondly, heart disease is the number one killer in this country, we're often told. And when it's conquered, there will be cancer, the number two culprit, then something else, even if it's only "natural causes," which is medicalese for "we don't know why s/he died." In men, the number three cause is . . . unintentional injury. Good luck with curing that one. First you'll have to get guys to stop drinking beer and saying, "Hey! Watch this!"

So if I am going to die, which is as sure a bet as the sun coming up every 23.9345 hours, I'm going to enjoy whatever time I've got. Naturally, I would like to prolong my current life style for as long as I continue to enjoy it. Eventually, though, I know it's going to be more restricted, less amusing, and more painful. In short, I will get old and feebler. My body will age and fail. And finally it's going to either run beserk in some way (cancer), break down (heart attack or stroke) or just quit like my dad's did, at 86. But in the meanwhile, there's life, which includes good food, beer, books, writing, walking around, looking at and doing art, and not freaking out every time somebody comes up with a new recommendation for prolonging my life.

Carpe Diem and pass the peanut butter, baby.

Reunion Time

MichiganmoiMy 30th high school reunion is coming up this August. As a result, a couple of people I went to school with have contacted me, including an old boyfriend (that phrase takes on a completely different meaning at this point). This is traditionally a time when people look back on their lives and often wonder where their dreams went. I haven't been doing that, but in writing back and forth to the old BF, I've been thinking about how different my life is from most of my friends, from the "norm," whoever Norm is.

I'm 48, unmarried  (not divorced or living in a state where gays can't marry, not in a relationship, just single), no kids, no pets, don't own a home or a car, living in the city not the suburbs or rural area, no real "career" and not even a job right now. By most economic measures, I'm among the working poor. My parents are both deceased and I'm pretty much alone, relative-wise. About the only way I'm average is my weight gain and my sexual orientation. Yet the only thing I'm even vaguely unhappy about is that I don't have cats at the moment.

My dreams have changed, but are still fairly intact and if not fulfilled in a grandiose manner, are pretty comfortably realized: I live in New York where I've always wanted to live. I write and publish a bit, I have a great circle of friends, I have fulfilling work (teaching). I make art. I have a comfortable home and good health. I travel a bit and have seen some of the world. I get to read a lot. I see plays and movies and dance and listen to music. There are museums everywhere for me to visit. Life is good. I'd like to be a little more financially secure, but that'll happen, one way or another. And I've been here before. Besides, I want and need so much less than I ever have before.

I'm not going to our reunion, mostly because I haven't the least desire to go back to Oscoda ever again, and because I've kept in touch with the two people from that period of my life who matter to me: Mel and Paul. Every now and then I hear about some of my former classmates from one or the other of them, but that was a different life for me, one I'm not all that interested in revisiting. I wasn't that interested in it when I lived there. And I've never been much interested in being or even acting like everyone else, or fitting in. But I've been thinking about how odd my life must look from the outside, especially to the people I grew up with in that little two-lane tourist town.

The last job I had was full of lovable, geeky misfits, and we liked to refer to ourselves as "not like the other kids." That would have been me in school, too. I think I was only acceptable by virtue of being the best friend of the smartest kid in class and the two biggest band nerds. I worked on the yearbook, went to games, did a little bit of drama, painted some murals in the school and had a good time, but I think I managed to carve out my own niche without succumbing to the crushing conformity of high school. I was sorta smart, sorta arty, sorta musical (sang in choir for a bit too), liked going to games even if I wasn't a jock, and was voted one of two class clowns (I actually campaigned for it).

But I knew I was never going to stay in that part of the world. I always knew I was going to go to college and move away, to do something different with my life. Most of the people I went to high school with went to college (or didn't), stayed or moved back, got married, had kids, divorced, remarried, in short, did all the average, usual things. The ones who left tended to be kids from the Air Force base that was still open then. When I was working on my long-abandoned Ph.D. in English at Michigan State, I ran into a woman from town who had been a very close friend at one time. We'd been like the characters in Starsky & Hutch, our favorite TV show at the time. When I'd gone to college, she'd married the GI she'd been dating our senior year and went around the world with him while having and raising two kids. Then he cheated on her and she left him, moving back to Northern Michigan where we grew up. When I saw her again, the base was still open and she was cleaning the barracks for a living and living in a small cottage on one of the little lakes. She actually liked it, she said, because she got to meet guys that way. I realized at that point that we had nothing to say to each other.

That story has become one of the defining moments in my life; it's Why I Left Oscoda.

That's not to say that everyone there is like that. Mel's the prime exception to the rule, and some of her friends are, too. Most of them come from somewhere else though, and Mel is just too darn smart and curious to stagnate anywhere she lives. She's about as conventional as I am, and has never been afraid to be exactly who she is. That's one of the greatest things I learned from her, growing up: be who you are, stick to what you believe in. She's attracted like-minded people as her friends.

The Times had an article, a review really, about a book called The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is tearing Us Apart, by Bill Bishop. This seems like a really familiar idea to me, having grown up in two fairly narrow-minded places: the church I belonged to and the community I lived in. Bishop says, “Mixed company moderates; like-minded company polarizes. Heterogeneous communities restrain group excesses; homogeneous communities march toward the extremes.” Apparently, as a nation we're "balkanizing" into more and more like-minded communities and this is part of what's making our politics so extreme. Having grown up in a small, white, tourist town, I can agree with this. It's one of the reasons I left. But the result of leaving is that I changed and grew. I became more myself and less what others thought I should be. This is one reason I live in the city. I'm exposed to new ideas and opinions all the time, constantly stimulated, shaken up, jolted out of complacency. It's not a quiet life and it's not conventional. It's also not for everyone but it does have what I see as some advantages.

For one thing, I don't have the responsibilities other people have, but that was a choice, too, not to have kids, or buy a house or a car. Is that selfish? Depends on what you think "selfish" is. Why should I have kids when (a) I have the means to not have them and (b) I have no desire for them? I should reproduce because that's what women do? Um, no. There's this thing called Feminism which is all about choice. This is my choice. As for car and house ownership, I'm laughing up my sleeve right now at the car owners and who says owning a house is all it's cracked up to be? Paul Krugman actually wrote a great editorial about this. It's another responsibility I've never wanted, another material object that I, as a good consumer, should go out and buy, mainly because it will give me "equity" in case I need money some day. Or as something to leave to my non-existent kids.

Otherwise, I'm pretty much like everyone else in the responsible adult category: I pay my taxes and bills, I work, I give back to the community, I'm respectful and law-abiding. Isn't that what's required of citizens? Oh wait. I forgot that Protestant Work Ethic thing.

One of my friends who's worked very, very hard for herself and as a result has an extremely successful business and a very fat bank account was moaning to me the other day about how she can't wait to retire. Having worked part-time most of my life and never having had a lot of money, I can't say I identified with her. I don't really plan on "retiring," per se. The life I've got now, as I said to her, is a lot like most people's idea of retirement. Work a bit, play a bit, do things you want to do, make sure you have enough money to live on and to hell with the rest. Why should I wait for retirement? I may be too sick or old by then to enjoy my free time. This is what happened to my mother. And as a writer and artist, I can't imagine a day when I would stop writing, or stop making art, unless I become incapacitated.

And of course, that's the difference. Jobs and careers are things you retire from, even if you really love the work. At some point it becomes drudgery: exhausting, tedious. That's the difference between being something and doing something. My friend makes her living writing, but I'm not sure she defines herself as a writer, certainly not in the same way I see myself as a writer. The idea that she will eventually stop writing the stuff she does now does not appall her as it would me. This was always one of the attractions of academic life, too. You might retire from teaching and administration and chairing committees, but you never have to stop thinking or publishing. Conversely, writers may decide to stop publishing, but you never stop reading or thinking about books and ideas, any more than artists stop thinking about art, even when they physically can't make it any more.

When your greatest pleasure comes from ideas and thoughts in a materialistic society, you're bound to be an outcast, or at least thought a little weird. And choosing to be single, let alone childless? That definitely puts you in the Quirkyalone category (my score on their quiz was 107=Very Quirkyalone. as the site says, "All those nights alone—they bring insight." I'm pretty sure not everybody lists insight as one of their goals in life, but it's always been one of my big priorities. I don't ever remember not asking myself who I was, what I was supposed to do, or what life was all about, or how my brain worked. Those are the questions you get to tackle when you're live the kind of life I do. You can do it as part of an average couple, but as one of my students said the other day, "What's philosophy for?"  If you're not asking what the world around is like and what makes it tick, you don't care. If you do, it takes time to figure it out, if you ever do. But at least the effort is fun, whether anyone else sees it that way or not.

Dreams: Anxiety #1

Depressed_moiI'm numbering these by type, because there will always be more. I'm a vivid dreamer and work a lot of stuff out in them, usually in the morning before I get up, like today. The street cleaner woke me at 7:30, and I rolled over and went back to sleep to find myself somewhere abroad, in the snowy mountains of Afghanistan, at a place that looked strangely like home nonetheless, and was equally hard to get to, get around, and get out of. I was living in a concrete bunker-like room with tall ceilings but very little else that was charming about it, though it was very modern, and I was late for class. Again. I'd enrolled at some kind of trade school where I was learning about design, and industrial design, and how to use complex tools and materials, but I wasn't the diligent student I usually am. I'd left my partner hanging on our project and screwed around for most of the semester. Today was the last day I had to redeem myself and I'd overslept, until 1:30 in the afternoon. Class started at 2:00, and there was no way I'd get there in time.

I went anyway, but it was mostly over by the time I got there, and people were putting the finishing touches on their projects. The class was in a huge concrete warehouse-type structure with multiple levels. Very modern, very Rem Koolhaas, totally out of place, but full of cool, talented people, wrapping up the end of their semester. A bunch were around a piano singing and celebrating the last class, including one older guy with an amazingly resonant bass voice that I wanted to meet. My friend Emilie was there too, working with an old acquaintance from high school named June. They were putting together a Plexiglas "rug" that would double as a wall-hanging and fold up neatly into a flat-pak. Around me throughout the building, I hear machines whirring. It occurs to me, after looking around, that the projects are oddly gender-sorted: women doing textiles and "soft" materials, guys working with glass, plastic, wood, metal, the ones that require complicated machinery to work with. My partner, a guy, and I had been working with glass and Plexiglas, though I don't remember what we'd been doing. It's reminiscent of the failed art project I'd done in college that promptly fell apart when I took it in for critique. (Great concept, it just needed better tools and technique to make it.)

I proceed to have a meltdown, realizing I've screwed up my whole semester and I'm going to fail this class and have to repeat it. I don't know what's wrong with me. I'm unmotivated, depressed, upset. Emilie keeps insisting it's because I don't have a man but I know that's not it. Somewhere inside, I know it's because I'm afraid: of the machines, of failure, of being found out as a fraud. I don't know what I'm doing and I hate that. But this is one of those few times where I can't just surf the fear through a new experience. I'm a failure.

Meanwhile, I meet three more friends in the parking lot, where it's snowing, and it turns out they're all pregnant, at more or less the same time, in the same stage. They've gotten huge since I last saw them. One of them is Sharon, whom I often copy edit for in real life Another is a summer roommate from college. The third is an unknown shadow. We drive away, through the snowy roads of the little town I grew up in and I wake up.

Well, that seems pretty self-explanatory, doesn't it? Another species of the anxiety dream, this one about art anxiety.The tool fear is kinda true. Dad worked hard to convince me that tools were dangerous and girls shouldn't "play" with them. I'm sure if I'd been a boy that would not have been the case. He was really annoyed when I took small engines in high school, and shop. Of course, the two token girls weren't allowed to get their hands dirty there, just like we weren't allowed to use the lab equipment in chemistry. (Thought it was okay if we washed it.) Jen gave me her tile cutter, which I'd love to have some place to use (it needs a workshop though) and I have a power drill, a Dremel and a couple of hand saws. I'd love to have a jigsaw or at least a circular saw, but again, you need a workshop for those, which I haven't got. Yet.

The pregnancy bit I'm sure is a metaphor for artistic creation. I'm seeing everyone else but me as full of ideas for art. That's a real fear too. I never think I have enough ideas for writing, making books or whatever, and yet I don't have enough time to get to the ideas I do have. Go figure.

I'm sure the snow and the sterile-looking buildings, the inaccessibility all speak to being trapped in some place where I can't create, but I'm not sure where that's coming from. Maybe from my looming reunion and my first (very minor and I hope last) surgery.

So there's my dream analysis. Be amused.

How to Keep Us Down

SciencemoiIt's not just religion, obviously, that's misogynistic, but it's always been interesting to me that this is one of the characteristics that religion and science, often so antithetical to each other, share and for so many of the same reasons. Of course, this is because both spring out of the society around them and are carried out and structured by the people in that society who have the power to make the structure. So if men decide women are too inferior in whatever way to have a personal relationship with God either through study of the texts or through participating in the mysteries (Milton's "He for God only, she for God in him.") little wonder scientists should think the same way about what many saw (and still see) as a new, improved replacement activity.

The reasoning, though is strikingly similar and you'd think scientists would pay more attention to that. Of course, it's to their advantage not to. It's convenient for them to claim that women's brains are not made for math (an old saw rapidly being dulled) or that we don't do science the way it "should be done," i.e., the way men do it. Probably true, but not necessarily bad or wrong. Just different. I'm not talking about the scientific method here, but about the culture of science and the way men and women approach problem-solving.

And of course, there are social and cultural pressures on women now that men don't have to deal with, as a report by the American Physical Society I recently helped edit shows quite admirably (it's still in production so I can't link to it, but APS has a great reading list). This is a factor just as often conveniently forgotten in the interpretations of key scriptures that seem to ban women from positions of authority in the church, while just as conveniently ignoring the scriptures that show them in those positions.

There are also some striking similarities between the two areas in their jealous guarding of knowledge. In both cases, men are are frequently the gatekeepers of the more esoteric aspects of knowledge (see, physicists), intentionally or unintentionally. Personally, I think this is because guys like secret societies and all that. They're forever making exclusionary clubs, from the Royal Society to the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks. But religion and science are public endeavors, affecting all of us. (Just look at the Evangelical Right's influence on elections in the U.S., if you don't believe me.) Faith that asks no questions is merely blind, stupid obedience; science that allows no free sharing of knowledge is not just bad science, but dangerous blind itself. In both cases the idea that "it's too complicated for you to understand" is used to keep the general public from asking uncomfortable questions: "Why is Junia, a woman, called an apostle?" (see sidebar) or, "Wait, why should we give you taxpayer money for that science project?"

All this is by way of saying that Richard Dawkins's selection of writers for the new Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing is damned odd. For one thing, there's nary a mere science writer among them; they're almost all scientists, even Rachel Carson, who started her career as a biologist. This is one example of the "father knows best" attitude so many scientists have toward the public: only scientists can truly communicate the beauty and wonder and complexity of science to the rest of you ninnies. This is far from the truth. It is, in fact, a hell of a lot easier to teach good writers about science than it is to teach most scientists to write well, particularly for the public. Most of them have a tendency to include too many advanced details that chase people away, rather than broad interesting ideas that draw them in. My science writer pal Jen waxes eloquent about this frequently in our conversations. The advanced details are important, but you don't start out with those for people with no or little background in the subject, and getting the concepts if you're not a scientist is far more important than understanding the technical details right away. Scientists often have a bad case of "can't see the forest for the trees" when it comes to writing for the public, particularly in their own subject.

And, of course, there are too few women, three, to be precise: biologist Rachel Carson, Helena Cronin, a philosopher who works in sex selection (and who happens to think there are more smart men than smart women—to be fair, she also thinks there are more dumb men than dumb women); and Barbara Gamow, not a scientist, but wife of physicist George Gamow, who is included because of the poem she wrote in response to one of George's lectures. How cute. I say this not to denigrate Barbara Gamow, who was, like many women married to male scientists, extremely supportive of her husband's work and no doubt a sounding board for it, but to illustrate the attitude prevalent about women's role in science: supportive; observer not participator; muse not partner.

Rachel Carson got in, I suspect, because she's hard to ignore; she was so prolific (and a fellow alumna of my alma mater!) and so pivotal in the early days of the ecology movement. But where's biologist Lynn Margulies, who, with James Lovelock, developed the Gaia theory? She's a wonderful writer. Where is primatologist Dian Fossey? Hello? Gorillas in the Mist anyone? Child psychologist Anna Freud? Primatologist/ethologist/anthropologist Jane Goodall, who, like Fossey, wrote extensively for the public? For that matter, where's Margaret Mead? I see physician Lewis Thomas on the list (one of my favorite writers, though he wrote as much about life as about science) but not doctors Perri Klass or Michelle Harrison. Where's oceanographer Sylvia Earle? Or forensic anthropologist Emily Craig? And those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head.

And we haven't even gotten to the non-scientist, women science writers: Natalie Angier, Dava Sobel, Heather Pringle,or Mary Roach, to name a few.

Hawkins's selection is pretty heavy on evolution (no surprise, given that he's an evolutionary biologist), genetics (again, no surprise), physics, neuroscience, and biological systems. There's not much chemistry, straight-up biology, medicine, and no ocean science or any of the so-called soft sciences like sociology or anthropology. If what he was aiming for was a balanced picture of the wonders of modern science, this book is hardly that, but it's not even a balanced picture of the best science writing. Like the hard sciences, it's very male dominated (and white males at that). Enough with Peter Medawar already. He's not that brilliant. He's taking up space with his multiple selections that could easily have been given to a woman or two, scientist or not.

Dawkins could have done much for women scientists everywhere by recognizing their work in this volume. Instead, he dragged out a lot of the old war horses: Eiseley, Watson & Crick, Gould, Thomas, Hoyle, Haldane, Snow. That's fine in an anthology like this. You need to include the classics and the big guns like Hawking and Einstein. But if you're going to include the likes of Steven Pinker, Oliver Sacks, Brian Greene, Lee Smolin and Kenneth Ford (whom I used to work for), then you need to include some contemporary women scientists too, dammit.

Why make a fuss over this? Because this is how women are systematically pushed out of history, in exactly the same way we were pushed out of recognition of our rightful place in the early church. Simply by excluding us from memory. By being ignored by the big shot males. That's all it takes.


Glitterfairy25userpic A meme making its way around. I can't often resist these. I've gacked this one from Life Stories Books. (This little icon, BTW, belongs to Glitterfairy25 over on LJ. Isn't it cool?)

Not as easy as you might think. Now copy or forward, change the answers to suit you and pass it on. It’s really hard to only use one word answers.

1. Where is your cell phone? purse
2. Your significant other? unfound
3. Your hair? greyer
4. Your mother? dead
5. Your father? ditto
6. Your favorite thing? books
7. Your dream last night? drama
8. Your favorite drink? alcoholic
9. Your dream/goal? enlightenment
10. The room you’re in? cafe
11. Your hobby? thinking
12. Your fear? anonymity
13. Where do you want to be in 6 years? printing
14. Where were you last night? party
15. What you’re not? lonely
16. Muffins? Sure!
17. One of your wish list items? letterpress
18. Where you grew up? boondocks
19. The last thing you did? breathe
20. What are you wearing? textiles
21. Your TV? unbought
22. Your pet? planned
23. Your computer? trooper
24. Your life? happy
25. Your mood? calm
26. Missing someone? absent
27. Your car? sold
28. Something you’re not wearing? cape
29. Favorite store? paper
30. Your summer? steamy
31. Like someone? default
32. Your favorite color? blue
33. When is the last time you laughed? now
34. Last time you cried? movies
35. Who will respond to this? bored

Archaeology, Science, Beer

Beermug_moiJen and I had a great conversation recently about the pervasiveness of science in our lives. It really is everywhere: your furniture (engineering in the milling of the pieces and metal that connects it), the obvious places like your computer and media, textiles (weaving and spinning were some of the earliest technologies); the paint on your walls (chemistry); your transportation (engineering and physics); most of our jobs involve some kind of science, even if we're only pushing electronic paper (computer science). Even agriculture is a science: fertilizers, crop rotation, planting and harvesting technologies.

Then there's beer.

Ben Franklin's assertion that "beer is the proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy" goes farther than any number of scriptures in proving His existence to my mind (even though the quote itself may be a fake). And the quest for substances to "make us happy" has a led to a lot of scientific advancements, not the least of which is basic chemistry (One of my favorite breweries, Magic Hat, actually has a brew called Chaotic Chemistry). Beer is based on the chemical transformation of starch and sugars into alcohol through the use of biological agents (yeast). The fermentation still is one of humanity's greatest inventions, right up there with fire and the wheel, in my personal opinion.

There are scholars who actually spend time studying the history of beer and brewing (why didn't I know these people in college? More importantly, why didn't I grow up to be one of them?) Irishmen Declan Moore and Billy Quinn are two of them, and they set out to discover how Bronze Age Irishmen might have brewed up their IPAs. "This quest" they say in their very important article, "took us to Barcelona to the Congres Cerveza Prehistorica, [this sounds even better than the Medievalists' bash in Kalamazoo which is always a big party, and how did I miss this on my trip to Barcelona?] and later one evening in Las Ramblas in the company of, among others, an international beer author, an award winning short story writer, a world renowned beer academic ["Beer academic"?!? You mean that's a job description? Not a foible? Damn. . . .] and a Canadian Classical scholar - all of whom shared our passion for the early history of beer." Here's Dec and Billy's demo and tasting party, complete with grilled dead pig. Sláinte! And happy Fourth to all you Budweiser-swilling, grilling patriots, carrying on the long tradition of beer and pig-roast.

[Thanks to North Atlantic Skyline for the tip]

Guilt by Association

MadbloggermoiBoy, what a headache this blog has turned into. Don't get me wrong: I love writing the blog. It's great to have a personal journal again, a place where I can write merely for the purpose of expressing my thoughts—with the usual writer's eye to mining those posts for use elsewhere, which is why I went to the trouble of putting a clear copyright statement on it. My other blog, Spawn of Blogorrhea, only has a Collective Commons copyright, stating that people are free to use the content, unaltered, for non-commercial purposes. I'm happy to have people subscribe to its feed, link, quote, or use the content for educational purposes. What I almost always protest is people just posting my content to draw traffic to their site, which may or may not have anything to do with book arts. Write your own damn content then. Don't steal from others.

So Dowsing, simply by virtue of its name, has ended up in the aggregate feed for a site called "Life Technology™. They sell pseudo-scientific, New Agey crap like Tesla oscillation fields, alchemical compounds, and Atlantean crystals (!! No, seriously!). So it's rather ironic that they're using my content on their site, since what Dowsing is all about is freedom from bad science and superstition. I've got hardly any hits on Dowsing, which I really don't care about in that sense. People will find it and read it if they're interested. It's as much for me as it is a public endeavor. So when I found Life Technology™'s url in my stats, I was curious, and then I was pissed off.  But I'll let you read the exchange; here's what I wrote to them yesterday:

I notice that the content on your site is protected by the Digital Millennium Copyright act. Guess what? So is mine. Please stop lifting content from my blog, Dowsing (http://leekottner.typepad.com/dowsing/), to use on your website as its purpose is antithetical to everything on your site. You have no less than a dozen posts from my blog on your dowsing page (http://www.lifetechnology.org/dowsing.php). Please remove them now or I will be filing a complaint with your ISP and website host.


Lee Kottner

And here's the nice little note I got in return this morning:

dear lee,
our news headlines at www.lifetechnology.org/dowsing.php are used according to fair use provisions and are intended to direct people to relevant sites.

you can read more about the fair use policy at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fair_use

we have not published your articles, only headings with links to your articles at your own blog.

if we were breaking copyright provisions as you claim then most sites on the web would also be breaking the rules but that is not the case.

this law has been tested in court many times and rulings have universally been in the favour of the blogger.

thank you

Are you laughing yet? I was. Wikipedia, huh? Here's my reply:

First of all, Kirsty, this is a very flimsy and erroneous argument, and you have picked the wrong person to use it on. I've written a series of posts on copyright for artists on another blog, so I'm fairly well educated about it. Find yourself a better source than Wikipedia. Try the U.S. Government copyright office instead.

As one of the intellectual property lawyers I spoke to said, "fair use only earns you the right to go to court." Fair use is in the eye of the copyright holder, who is much more likely to be favored in a court case than the person in violation; there is no hard and fast rule about proportion or magic number of words that the user may interpret for their own purposes. You are not using just the "headlines" from my posts; you are using much of the introductory paragraph. The feed from yesterday's post (7/02 "It's Just That Simple") uses almost the entire post, since it was a short written introductory paragraph with a video attached. The fact that you have selections from more than half of my posts would probably count against you too. I've become a major source for that particular feed, simply because my blog is called "Dowsing." As of this date, there are only 30 posts on my blog. 13 of those posts appear in some form on your page. That's a high proportion of content.
Fair use usually holds up best in court when it is used for educational purposes, in a classroom, or by artists. Your site is clearly primarily a commercial endeavor, not a news and information aggregator, and you are using my content to draw commercial traffic to your commercial site. Either you offer me a fee for the use of my content in this way, since you are clearly using it in a commercial manner, or you are in violation of my copyright, which states that my content cannot be used for commercial purposes unless I agree to it. I have not agreed, so you're in violation.
If you'd like a clear run-down on "fair use" you can find it here, at the U.S. Government copyright office site: http://www.copyright.gov/fls/fl102.html. It clearly states that commercial use has less protection than non-profit or educational uses. It also clearly states that the safest course is always to get permission, which you have not done. Here are some of the uses which have generally been considered "Fair use" in the past.
The 1961 Report of the Register of Copyrights on the General Revision of the U.S. Copyright Law cites examples of activities that courts have regarded as fair use:

quotation of excerpts in a review or criticism for purposes of illustration or comment; quotation of short passages in a scholarly or technical work, for illustration or clarification of the author's observations; use in a parody of some of the content of the work parodied; summary of an address or article, with brief quotations, in a news report; reproduction by a library of a portion of a work to replace part of a damaged copy; reproduction by a teacher or student of a small part of a work to illustrate a lesson; reproduction of a work in legislative or judicial proceedings or reports; incidental and fortuitous reproduction, in a newsreel or broadcast, of a work located in the scene of an event being reported.
None of these fit your case. In your reply, you state: "this law has been tested in court many times and rulings have universally been in the favour of the blogger." Guess what? You're not the blogger here. I am. You are the aggregator. The Associated Press has recently sued a news aggregator over just this issue. You can read about it here: http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20071010-associated-press-sues-news-aggregator-for-licensing-failure.html
Secondly my site is not a "news" site nor is it relevant to your content; it is not about the paranormal, or dowsing, and is in fact, in part about real science, not the fake kind you're selling to gullible seekers. Now, if you'd like to see a totally scientific debunking about every one of your products appear in that "news" feed from my site, I'll be happy to oblige. It happens to fit my subject matter pretty tidily. I also happen to know a couple of well-respected science writers (and physicists) who'd be happy to pitch in, I'm sure.

Section 1204 sets out a hefty penalty for copyright infringement: 

§ 1204. Criminal offenses and penalties

(a) GENERAL  Any person who violates section 1201 or 1202 willfully and for purposes of commercial advantage or private financial gain

(1) shall be fined not more than $500,000 or imprisoned for not more than 5 years, or both, for the first offense; and

(2) shall be fined not more than $1,000,000 or imprisoned for not more than 10 years, or both, for any subsequent offense.

I went to the trouble of clearly marking this site as copyrighted because I intend to use some of the posts in a non-fiction book. Your publication of them without my consent and without a fee injures me as an author and I think a court would side with me on this. Do you really want to risk a half-million dollar fine on this? And that's not counting the $100,000 for each infringement, i.e, each separate use of one of my posts. That's well over a million dollars in fines should it reach the maximum. Not to mention jail time.

Care to risk it?


Lee Kottner

Oddly enough, within an hour of receiving this, the feed from the news pages disappeared from their site. I suspect there is some serious editing of the spider going on.

UPDATE: Then the feed came back, and I began plotting with Jen to do the debunking posts, but this morning, I got a little note from their "legal counsel":

Dear Lee,
Thank you for your bringing your DMCA related concerns to our attention.
Life Technology acts as a news aggregator to provide news stories for the purpose of disemmination of news in categories that are relevant to our website. Dowsing is one such area that we are involved in. You will find many bona fide articles about dowsing at our website and blog. Despite what you seem to believe, our news stories are offered for educational purposes.
We are not guilty of publishing your work for our commercial gain nor have we acted in bad faith.
From a legal perspective, an infringement case would be very weak. There is strong argument for a fair use defense here. The brief exerpts of your work posted by ourselves are not stifling demand for your work. We are actually creating demand, not decreasing demand by providing links to the original work. Further, posting excerpts of the articles and linking to the original facilitates and invites critical discussion of the content, one of the primary reasons for the fair use defense.
You could not use the argument that we are diminishing the value of your work by disseminating copyrighted work prior to the publication of a book if you are publishing these exerpts into the public domain yourself.
Links are the currency of the internet. Instead of harassing bloggers etc., you should be praising them for bringing people to your content. It's a very poor business decision to ask people not to facilitate access to your product.
We are aware of the recent filing where Associated Press is suing a news aggregator on the same grounds. We feel that this even marks an unfortunate event in the history of the internet and free speech.
We have temporarily removed the offending page dowsing.php pending the outcome of The Associated Press versus Moreover technologies lawsuit and further clarification of DMCA law.
Thank you.
Joshua Silverberg, Legal Counsel Life Technology

He's got some interesting interpretations of "public domain," "educational," and "news" and I love the scolding tone that I should be "praising" people for stealing my content and not paying me for it. The upshot, however, is the removal of the offending feed, so that is already some admission of ambiguity, if not guilt. And removing the page is enough for me. Needless to say, I'll be watching my stats.

I'm not normally in favor of bullying people with the DMCA. Big corporations have made a bad habit of using it to intimidate perfectly legal uses of their content, so they can control all the money. I was happy to see The Naked Cowboy win the right to sue M&M Mars for use of his image for that reason. As a teacher, I'm all for fair use. But as a writer, I'm also all for being paid for your work and for having it appear only where you want it to. There's a thin and badly defined line between fair use and exploitation.

In this case, there's also the issue of guilt by association. As a writer, I do not want to be associated with any entity that sells the kind of pseudo-scientific crap this site sells. This is a list of their other "news" feeds, most of which I have a lot of objections to:

Kabbalah Radionics Magick Radiesthesia Homeopathy Alternative Health Mercola Jeff Sutherland PRWEB NLP Hypnosis Orgone Orgonite Rife Psychotronics Psionics Illuminati Alchemy Ormus Free Energy Alternative Science Spirituality Huna Metaphysics Occult Witchcraft Health Spirit Conspiracy Herbal Medicine Dowsing Healing Seduction Rosicrucian Paranormal Philosophy Technology Science Paganism Wicca Time Travel Feng Shui Atlantis UFO Scientology Zappers Cloudbusters Nikola Tesla Grimoires Chemtrails Manifesting Yoga Astrology Psychic Powers Xtrememind Forum

I hate to see yoga, spirituality, metaphysics, health, philosophy, technology, science, and Nikola Tesla lumped in with Atlantis, UFOs, Scientology, Orgone, Alchemy, and the Illuminati. Some of these things are not like the others, not even remotely. I  suspect it was at least as much the threat of debunking as it was the legal talk that led to the sudden demise of the news feed. People have a right to believe whatever they like, but they also have a right not to be forced to associate or have their work associated with causes or ideas they don't condone. And control of your own intellectual work trumps, every time, the notion that information wants to be free.

[Cross posted at Spawn of Blogorrhea]

It's That Simple

Radicalmoi It's only grown-ups who complicate things so much that they can't see the forest for the trees.  Share. Play nice. Don't hit. Care for each other. It's not that hard. We just make it complicated with our theories of economics, our artificial borders and insistence on national identity, our short-sightedness, our greed. The simple truth is that we create our own suffering. And here's the child telling emperors they have no clothes. Be ashamed.

The Church of Typography

Going_to_church_moiLdsposterEvery now and then my worlds collide, producing some really interesting mashups. I love cathedral and church architecture, especially the Gothic and neo-Gothic. I love typography and I'm a big fan of poster art of all kinds, but especially letterpress. So I was in a little ecstasy of delight when I ran across this amazing, amazing piece of typographical design by Cameron Moll, via Veer's website (click the "Ideas" tab for more coolness from Veer). You can see other pictures of it at Veer's website or order one for yourself. Half of them are gone already, at $50 a pop + postage and I just ordered one for myself, so if you love this kind of stuff, get on it now. I'll let you know how glorious it is and gloat a little when it arrives. Just the pictures have really knocked my socks off.

Ldstemple This is only a detail of the whole 16"x24" print which is a rendering of the main Latter Day Saints Temple in Salt Lake City [click for full size pics]. Though it was designed to advertise a design review independent of the church itself, there was a time when I would have hesitated to buy this because of what it depicted. I'm not a Mormon and never was, but you have to admit that their Salt Lake City Temple is a gorgeous building, just like Notre Dame or Westminster Abbey, Wells Cathedral, or my personal favorite, St. John the Divine. The church I used to be part of spent a lot of energy separating itself from what it called "Christendom," or the general community of Christian beliefs in all their various sects and schisms. No grand buildings for them, just plain meeting halls (that were somehow still too sacred to play a little jazz in for my mother's funeral; guess God doesn't like jazz). So I often felt a bit guilty for my love of soaring Gothic arches and stained glass, for the grandeur of these enormous churches built to the glory of God. There were people of my faith who wouldn't even go to a relative's wedding if it was held in a church, as though entering that building would somehow contaminate them. That always struck me as overly superstitious anyway, especially since we were taught that a building was just a building. (I'm not sure when that changed, or if that was a personal quirk I encountered at Mom's memorial service.)

Part of me understood that impulse to build these grandiose buildings that reach to heaven, to build a place not for God to dwell in, because that obviously wasn't necessary, but a place to reflect the grandeur of creation and to have a little part in it too. But I understand too the flip side that sees it as a waste of money that could have been used to feed the poor. I've always thought Christ's response to the the woman who washed his feet with expensive oil was a little enigmatic and harsh. Yes, it was an act of worship, but I empathized with the disciples who thought it was a waste of money too. They're competing sensibilities that don't co-exist very easily, similar to the impulse that wants to make art that reflect's God's glory warring with the concept of idolatry. No easy answers to that one either, like most such questions.

Since starting this blog, which seems to have been a watershed moment, a turning point, I've encountered more and more little things that used to a source of conflict and guilt for me that no longer have to be. It's liberating and scary at the same time, like all changes. But it also allows me to find beauty everywhere and surely beauty is a part of whatever the term god should mean to us.

[Cross posted in much shorter form at Spawn of Blogorrhea]