Let Slip the Reindeer of War

Seeing as how we are post-Thanksgiving, I think it’s safe to say that the War on Christmas has begun again. I’m woefully under armored for this particular fight, having no t-shirts or jackets that actively disparage religion or Christmas in general.

In fact, I am a pretty miserable soldier in the War on Christmas. Yes, I commit the unpardonable sin of saying “happy holidays,” but there are those like Richard Beck who claim that I am actually being less blasphemous by doing so.

It’s blasphemous to post “Merry Christmas” all through a shopping mall. It’s blasphemous to slap the name of Jesus on all the Xboxs, Playstations, iPhones, and High-Def TVs. “Happy Holidays,” while still not great given that I don’t like the word “holy” being involved, is much better than “Merry Christmas.”

And the association of “Merry Christmas” with the local, state and federal governments is just as problematic. The Nativity set in the town square is just as profane and blasphemous as the “Merry Christmas” on the Xbox.

In short, while I’m very happy to have a more tolerant and liberalized shopping experience during the holiday season (out of simple civic respect I don’t want my Muslim or Jewish neighbours to be greeted with “Merry Christmas”), my deeper concern is how the “War on Christmas” panic is inherently blasphemous and idolatrous.

Leave it to Beck to ruin my fun.

Though, I have to admit, it’s a rather quiet war this year. I mean, we’ve had some early volleys with Sarah Palin’s failed book and Rick Santorum’s failed movie (point of order: what idiot thought to release a contemporary Christian film in theaters instead of direct-to-DVD?), but for the most part we haven’t been given the Full Fox Press on every retailer that didn’t address their specific holiday consistently. Maybe because it’s still Hanukkah and it could be considered anti-Israel to ignore that as long as it doesn’t conflict with December 26th?

Either way, unless Christians find some new way to weaponize The Christmas Shoes this year (a collectable card game, maybe?), I’m planning a nice, relaxing holiday season where I don’t have to worry about being berated for not paying obeisance to the cobbled together remains of somebody else’s celebration. So, here’s just some of the things I plan to do this December.

1. Listen to Holiday Music – This can include a lot of things. I’m always looking for new versions of Good King Wenceslas, since that’s my favorite carol. Of course, I’ll probably work on trying to learn the perennially beautiful White Wine in the Sun. I’m a big fan of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s A Very Scary Solstice and An Even Scarier Solstice (my favorites are “Harley got Devoured by the Undead” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Yog-Sothoth”). Otherwise, whether they’re religious or not, I love Christmas carols and will spend the next month singing them to myself and anyone who stands still long enough to listen.

2. Watching Holiday Movies – When I was growing up, I had a VHS tape that was just loaded with holiday movies. Santa Claus: the Movie, A Chipmunk Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and a number of others. I have since found digital copies of all of them seeing as I no longer own a VHS player and the tape is worn out anyway, and I make an effort to watch them all this month. I have since added a number of others. Alf’s Special Christmas is a tearjerker about love and life that shouldn’t come from a big nosed puppet Rodney Dangerfield rip-off.

The Muppets have so many Christmas specials it’s hard to watch them all (BTW: if you haven’t seen this year’s with Lady Gaga, watch it. It’s hilarious, and the gender-swapped “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Joseph Gordon-Levitt is perfect), but I try. The Muppet Christmas Carol is a must, however, and it’s something the whole family enjoys. In fact, part of the tradition is gushing with my father over how entertaining the rats are in that film.

A Claymation Christmas, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, Christmas Vacation, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, Die Hard. I love them all and can’t wait to be able to start watching through them this year.

3. Charity – I find myself more in need of charity than able to give it this year, but I still plan to work for local charities when I have the opportunity. By sheer luck, the restaurant the Dark Lord of Bakery works at got in contact with the person who runs a local battered women’s shelter, so I’m going to try to help them do fundraising for that group. I also won’t donate to the Salvation Army for obvious reasons, but I do make a point of noting how much money I would have given a bell ringer and, at the end of the season, donating that amount of a local charity, usually one that takes in homeless LGBT youth like the Zebra Coalition. And there are countless opportunities to do good all season long that I will try and avail myself of.

4. Spend Time With Loved Ones- The Sovereign of Aesthetics and the Bladed Poet are having a gathering at their home this year for us to get together, drink, sing, and play board games. So basically the same thing we do all year long, but I get to do it in a sweater, and I look amazing in sweaters. I also plan to go over there, in combination with #2 above, to show said Sovereign the Muppet/Gaga holiday special she missed. Plus I might make my family’s annual Christmas party this year, which is always fun. And for the holiday itself, it’s a big Italian meal at my parents’ house. So there will be plenty of time to socialize and enjoy the company of loved ones this year.

I could go on, but this is how I plan to fight the War on Christmas this year. More to the point, I plan on fighting it by doing basically the same things as the religious right professional martyrs do, but with no obligation to say “Merry Christmas” unless I feel like it. I encourage everyone, this holiday season, to use the greeting they feel comfortable with, accept other greetings in the spirit in which they were meant, and focus your ire on yelling at your family about health care reform, as is traditional.

Happy holidays to you all, and keep an eye out for more posts as I can.

Man Divorced From Reality Running For Sheriff

Mark Kessler, a man who doesn’t let reality get in the way of his simplistic worldview and violent hatred of people not like him, has decided since it’s likely that he will be fired as police chief of Gilberton, PA, that he will run a write in campaign for county sheriff.

The parade of ridiculous is amusing and frightening, like Halloween Horror Nights with fewer strobes, but pay attention to the bolded part from this Facebook post (emphasis mine) :

when your back is against the wall, when the odds are almost impossible to overcome, that my friends is when we the people finally stand up and say , ENOUGH! so all I can say is this!, BRING IT YOU PACK OF SCUM SUCKING SHIT BAG POLITICIANS, i’m not politically correct , damn proud of that I must say! I don’t come with a smile and a bag of bullshit every four or two years, NEVER HAVE NEVER WILL!, I don’t need to suck the so called elected elites ass cracks to run for anything, or get the stamp of approval from the so called elected elites! I’m an AMERICAN, nothing more nothing less, I love my country, I honor our military who honor their oath, I honor all American Patriots, and all those who shed their blood of gave the ultimate sacrifice defending freedom whether on the field of battle or not! as for you scum sucking politicians from the left & right, WE THE AMERICAN PEOPLE ARE COMING AND YES WE ARE PISSED OFF! so NOVEMBER 5TH 2013 WRITE IN MARK KESSLER FOR SCHUYLKILL COUNTY SHERIFF, one true american patriot! and lets give this CURRENT thuggery regime here in Schuylkill county & across the nation THE BOOT!

I’m going to do a favor to everyone who has ever claimed not to be politically correct and recommend that you stop making that claim. When you say, “I’m not politically correct,”  you think you’re saying, “I’m a bold warrior for free speech.” What you are actually saying is, “Other people? Who gives a shit about them? Why should they stand in the way of my saying any bizarre or ridiculous thing that comes into my head the moment I think of it and suffer no social consequences for it?”

You see, another phrase that means the same thing as being “politically correct” is “being nice.” If you sincerely believe that there are people who, due to any given difference from you, don’t deserve at least a modicum of respect or kindness as the default behavior, then you should not be proud of that. You should be ashamed and start immediately watching re-runs of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

People who rail against political correctness either don’t understand what it means, or they’re looking for an excuse to be gigantic assholes and feel morally superior for it. Nobody is buying it, though. You want to be a douche of epic proportions, you go right ahead, but don’t expect me to praise your honesty. If your honest opinion is, like the thoroughly unhinged and armed Kessler that people who disagree with him are “fucking cocksuckers” who ought to be shot, then you are a seriously sick individual and I hope you’ll limit your contact with human beings.

If you reject kindness as some sort of unfair burden on your liberty and attempt to martyr yourself because people didn’t like that you’re a jerk, then it’s time to re-evaluate your behavior. There is nothing noble about being “not politically correct.” It is no more a virtue than being uninformed and claiming that that gives you a completely unbiased perspective. In both cases you are glorifying ignorance.

Poor Reaction to Affleck: He-Nerd Rage

ben-affleck-batman-tai-urban_wenn20441205__oPtWow. Been asked three times today what I think about Ben Affleck cast as Batman, once by a person I don’t know and who isn’t a reader. Hate to pass the buck, but with the exception of his dislike of Man of Steel that seems to increase over time (I still like it on the whole), I’d have to say that MovieBob pretty much nails it.

Yes, he’s been in some goofy movies, and yes he’s not as talented as Matt Damon (who probably wouldn’t be right for the role), but he’s a solid actor with a love of comics, two Academy Awards, who has played a range of different parts with depth and aplomb. Sure, his last attempt at a comic movie, Daredevil, sucked, but it wasn’t because of something he did. It was a poorly written movie where the hero was heroic because stories have protagonists and the villains were villainous because stories have antagonists, and in neither case was any motivation assigned to anybody. However, that didn’t keep Michael Clark Duncan from doing a great Kingpin and it didn’t keep Affleck from making a believable Daredevil and, more to the point, Matt Murdock.

I will add that I think Affleck is suffering from a largely male-dominated nerd culture that won’t let go of the brief moment when Affleck was considered a pretty boy instead of a legit actor. This was roughly when he was dating J-Lo, which was bad enough (he’s dating a POP STAR! Nerds stand against pop and everything pop represents!), but then he went and married Jennifer Garner, who was in enough leather-clad spy and super hero roles to have, again for a moment, set herself up as a male nerd fantasy. This combined perception of betrayal and appropriation seems to have set Affleck up as being entirely untenable as a potential Batman, the Mary Sueiest of Mary Sue characters.

And the thing is, I remember the hate directed at Affleck at the time and, to a lesser extent, Garner. Regular readers can probably predict what was said about Garner, but there was this overwhelming sense in geek circles that this guy sullied himself with pop star germs, then swooped in to ruin Daredevil and take Sydney Bristow from us, forever ruining what would have undoubtedly been many more Elektra movies. He had the gall to impregnate her, depriving us of another season of her kicking ass in skimpy outfits in Alias. He…he…something! It was all very confusing back then.

And, to be honest, it’s not just Affleck who gets this. Anyone remember the reaction to Heath Ledger as the Joker? Fortunately, the internet is forever. Did you know there was a time when that guy who did Inception was just some empty-headed pretty boy who only ever did one part and looked like a girl (TW: early internet webpage design)?

Now, I will admit that he has done a number of bad films. I won’t go into them, it was covered pretty well in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, but the guy has also done a lot of really fantastic ones. However, lots of people have. For example, did you know that before playing Batman, Michael Keaton was Mr. Mom? He was in Touch and Go. How about The Squeeze? Pre-Batman, this guy had basically one great film, Beetlejuice, and two good ones, Johnny Dangerously and The Dream Team.

But this has nothing to do with good and bad films. It has a lot to do with the perception of Affleck as a pretty boy, and most especially as Not One of Us. Oddly, Affleck himself seems to express the sentiment quite nicely in this interview:

People decided that I was the frat guy, even though I’ve never been inside a fraternity, or the guy who beat them up at school, even though that wasn’t me at all.

The pretty boy actor has a lot to overcome in nerd circles. They need to somehow prove their bona fides as real representatives of geek culture, because wide appeal to others marks them as…well, Other, and we can’t have that. And it seems that building his own goddamn Batcave in his house doesn’t count.

What I’m saying is, time to stop jumping on the “he’s going to ruin the role” bandwagon and think of this rationally. This is an accomplished actor and director. This is the guy who killed it in Argo, Shakespeare in Love, Chasing Amy, The Town, State of Play, and Hollywoodland, among others. He has the chops, he has the passion, and if they can get him to direct one of these films (he was offered the director’s chair for Justice League if he agreed to play Batman years ago), he certainly has more talent in that department than Zack Snyder. He is not just a pretty face, and it’s time that we stop knee-jerk reacting to actors who made their bones being marketed in parts for their looks.

Link Parade 6/30/13

Here’s a collection of things I wanted to talk about but don’t have a full post in me for.

1. Apparently, Ohio is also passing an abortion ban, presumably to create the jobs they keep saying is their priority. Miri has the details and is encouraging people to call John Kaisich and tell him to line-item veto that provision from the budget bill. I encourage you to go over there and get the details on how. I just did, and I don’t even think modern Republicans ever give a shit about public opinion, but it didn’t hurt me. The part that gets me, however, is this bit:

Doctors must inform patients seeking abortions exactly how much money the clinic made from abortions within the past year, and how much money the clinic stands to lose if the patient chooses not to get an abortion. In case it’s unclear, the point of this is to warn patients that there is a “conflict of interest” involved in providing abortions because clinics can make money from them. This is ridiculous because any medical procedure can make money for doctors and hospitals.

You’ll notice that with the advent of 501(c)4s and the GOP’s favorite Court ruling, Citizen’s United, that the opposite is true of them. If I were a principled Democrat in Ohio, every bill will have a proposed amendment that you cannot submit a bill in the state legislature without it saying how much you have received from the relevant special interest group and how much you stand to lose in campaign donations if the bill doesn’t pass.

2.Will Wilkinson talks about why Republicans would bother standing against immigration reform when it’s clear that even 86% of Republican voters think a “pathway to citizenship” is a good idea. And the answer is that they have a hard core base that really is dedicated to identity politics.

The energetic ideological base of the Republican Party is a nationalist, identity-politics movement for relatively well-to-do older white Americans known as the “tea party”. The tea party is interested in bald eagles, American flags, the founding fathers, Jesus Christ, fighter jets, empty libertarian rhetoric, and other markers of “authentic” American identity and supremacy. That America is “a nation of immigrants” is a stock piece of American identity politics, but the immigrants that made America America were, well, not Mexican, and spoke English, or at least Pennsylvania Dutch. Sorry Mexicans! Even if each element of immigration reform, taken in isolation, is agreed to be a good idea by a solid majority of Republican voters, Republican politicians must nevertheless avoid too-enthusiastically supporting this package of good ideas, lest they fail to project sufficient appreciation for the importance of keeping America American and putting Americans first.

This is where I think there is an element of cognitive dissonance present in a lot of GOP voters. They don’t think of themselves as hurting immigrants, they don’t want to hurt anybody, but they also want to feel more authentic, more American than somebody, and immigrants are a traditional target. They prioritize their desire to feel superior, better than, over their desire to help people who may have been raised in this country, entirely unaware that their parents brought them here illegally as babies. They aren’t entirely unfeeling toward other people, which is why they support parts of the bill, but a whole bill threatens their feeling of supremacy and that cannot happen.

3. This is the boy I wish I was when I was 13. In fact, this is the boy I wished I was when I was 13. Will Phillips has been a social justice activist since he was 10 years old. Matt Barber has questioned his motivations and suggested he’s been “brainwashed” (which is wingnut speak for “taught that other people matter”). He initially got famous for refusing to say the Pledge because he didn’t feel that we did have “liberty and justice for all.” Most recently, he spoke at the Northwest Arkansas Pride Parade. This kid is amazing and has a bright future ahead of him. Go read about him now.

4. TW: cults, murder, homophobia. “Lord” Pete Moses is the leader of a Judaism-based cult. And he has just been found guilty of murdering two of his followers, one of which was a 4-year-old boy who was killed because Moses thought he was gay. At the very least he will be going to jail, the sick fuck. Sentencing is next Friday.

5. If you have small children, you should fill out this form saying you would be interested in getting them this awesome toy to teach your youngsters about evolution. Even if you don’t have kids you should fill it out. This is not buying the product, they are gauging interest in it, and filling out the initial form will not ask you for credit card information, but will give you an opportunity to give comments.

6. If you remember me talking about Joe Klein and how he apparently doesn’t understand that atheists help people, there have been multiple updates. First, Klein himself tried to weasel his way out of his comments by claiming that he only meant organized atheist groups, which is still incorrect. Now Time has come out with its own statement, and basically they’re supporting Klein, which is why I highly suggest that you contact Time and let them know that this is utterly unacceptable, that inaccurate reporting has no excuse, and that you intend to cancel your subscription if you have one.

On a side note, I was helping my friend with her baby yesterday. Funny how Joe Klein wasn’t there to help.

7. This baby duck was born with a deformed leg. So, rather than give him a peg leg or letting him suffer, science has found a solution. Using a 3D printer, people made a mold for a silicone prosthetic leg and foot for Buttercup. All the feels for this one.

8. I was torn about this for a whole 3 seconds before recognizing the problems with it. Basically, it’s a website that is encouraging a movement for “Christian Domestic Discipline” which we are told is a consensual arrangement that includes male domination and punishments like spanking.

Christian Domestic Discipline is not BDSM. It is not a game. While we do not deny its sometimes erotic nature, it is ultimately not for erotic purposes. It is often much different than the domestic discipline you will find outside of the Christian faith.

The thing is, it sounds a lot like BDSM. However, my experience has taught me that I can’t trust that Christianists aren’t lying when they say stuff like “consensual”, and there is a question of whether a lifetime’s worth of being told that this is the natural order of things leaves a person in a position to meaningfully consent or not. However, giving the women involved in this the benefit of the doubt, I see nothing on their website about wives who want to exit this “consensual” arrangement, or merely drop that aspect of it without getting a divorce. I also see no mention of safe words and very little in the way of safety instructions to keep husbands from going too far (I suppose god will stop them?), which means it is very, very, very not BDSM. Essentially, as a Dom/sub relationship with a religious play component, this could be really hot. As a lifestyle with no escape routes, no safety instructions, and no apparent care for the lives of women who get into this other than value paternalistic nonsense, it sounds both dangerous and abusive, despite claims that it is not (because saying that something is not abusive/racist/homophobic/otherwise awful totes makes it true).

9. #4 on this Fred Clark link list. Just go read it.

I think that’s everything for now. Oh, if you haven’t, please go vote on my new tagline. It’ll only take a second and be really helpful.

New Tag Line

It was pointed out to me the other day that my tag line is not really appropriate. I had originally chosen it as a self-deprecating joke, in the vein of “how could anyone think I had anything useful to say”? Turns out, quite a few of you do, and I am deeply humbled by that.

However, despite my intent, the point this person was making was that even if we take my relative unimportance as a given, the things I talk about are remarkably meaningful most of the time. In fact, some are downright vital.

So, I have decided to change my tag line, and ask you, my fellow Conversationists, for your input. I have come up with a couple of options, and created a poll. Please, take a moment and let me know what you like.

They Like Me! They Really Like Me!

Good afternoon, my lovely Conversationalists!

Well, it seems that some other people have been reading, and after three applications, I have been accepted as a contributor to Queereka, the Skepchick network’s LGBT-oriented blog.

I am very honored by this and hope to do a good job for them.

To you, my loyal, bright, and beautiful readers, don’t worry. I am not going to stop posting here. All of my Queereka stuff will be posted here, at least in part, and I have so much to say about other subjects (and, more importantly, hear your reactions on). We’re really building a great conversation here, making the right enemies, and hopefully getting excited to make some changes in the world, and I wouldn’t want to stop that at all.

Anyway, look for more posts upcoming, including my first crosspost. I adore you all and hope that you will also read my stuff over at Queereka.

Fighting From the Inside

Have you ever met a person who was part of a group that did terrible things, and when you asked them why they would want to be a part of that they tell you, “I’m trying to change things from the inside”?

I’ve been thinking a lot about what that means and if it’s really possible. One thing I can say for sure, though, is that you can’t change things on the inside unless you’re subverting the bad behavior. Let’s look at some examples.

Rabbi Ari Hart, an Orthodox rabbi, wakes every morning and says the following prayer: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has not made me a woman.” This is the prayer he’s expected to say in the mornings, the prayer that is written in his holy book. Unsurprisingly, Hart is a little uncomfortable about this, and writes about his discomfort at HuffPo. (h/t Rebecca’s Dystopia)

These difficult, even painful blessings are a part of a series of otherwise beautiful meditations thanking God for the everyday gifts of sight, clothes and freedom. Those other blessings roll easily off my tongue, the praise genuine and sincere. But for years I’ve struggled with praising God for not making me a woman. And I’m not the only Orthodox rabbi who struggles with it.

Ok, that’s good. Orthodox rabbis should struggle with that. It’s a stupid thing to say, let alone say every morning. It re-enforces that there is something wrong with being a woman and glorifies the people who established societies where it is true. In fact, this should be a very brief struggle, one followed by no longer saying that particular line.

But, of course, Hart eventually decides that he will say it anyway. He spends some time talking about the advantages he gets as a man (which is a good thing), but then comes up with some lame excuse about how saying this every day reminds him of that.

This blessing calls me to recommit to building a world where inequality and oppression do not exist. It calls me to recommit each day to building a world where saying “thank you God for not making me a woman” will disappear, not because it is offensive, but because it is meaningless.

This is the most pathetic excuse for this sort of behavior I have ever seen. Hart seems to think his position as a spiritual leader is meaningless already, that the people who attend his synagogue don’t actually listen to him. If he wants that particular prayer to disappear, he should take a bit of responsibility and make it disappear, at least in his prayers. It’s not some super-secret double fakeout where saying, “thank god I’m not a woman” actually means we should pay attention to gender inequality. It’s an artifact of an uneducated and backward time and place where patriarchal jackwagons solidified their power by designing a society where being anything other than them was a sign of impurity that could be used to keep superstitious mobs from working together.

Hart makes a point of how he’s trying to subvert the meaning of this prayer, but he’s not actually doing anything subversive. He’s just going along to get along and smiling to himself on the inside because he’s bucking the system in the laziest and least effective way possible: by silently thinking something he’s not supposed to.

We can also apply this to the Catholic Church. I know a lot of people who still attend Church and still support the Vatican, at least financially. The people who Timmy Dolan tried to have arrested last week were all believers who clearly disagree with the red hatted scum. There are a lot of Catholics that I know that are trying to change things in the Church, but the question becomes: how?

Seriously, how do you change an organization that has been used to getting their way for centuries? One that doesn’t even have the decency to be embarrassed about hiding child rape? Seriously, look at George Cardinal Pell, Archbishop of Sidney, answering an inquiry about coverup of child rape in the Australian Church. He throws out excuse after excuse, apologizes to nobody in particular, and even engages in some victim blaming according to some reports. Since there is still some speculation on whether this was said or not, I’m waiting on the transcript to post, but several people who were present Tweeted that Pell had said, “Some of the victims themselves aren’t entirely blameless,” and blamed the media for “25 years of hostility” toward the Church.

Regardless, I have to ask how one fights that from within? The Church’s power stems from money and the perception of numbers. Even though most Catholics disagree with Rome on a number of issues, the fact that there are still butts in seats gives them an outsized amount of power compared to their actual influence. Similarly, if you bother to drop cash into the collection plate, you’re paying the moving costs of pedophile priests and PR firm fees, so why bother even showing up?

Another example: The Boy Scouts. There are several people I know who are Eagle Scouts and remain a part of the organization despite the discriminatory nature of it. Even with the tepid, illogical, and universally infuriating decision to allow gay scouts but not gay scout leaders or atheist anything, it’s pretty clear that the impetus for change in the BSA is as much a reaction to outside pressure as inside.

Unlike the Church and Rabbi Hart’s synagogue, though, it seems that there are people who actually can and are doing something in the BSA. According to Dante at Surviving the World, who is very passionate about this, there have been councils operating under their own non-discrimination policies for a while. There are Scouts who have worked their way through the ranks to be able to vote on national policy. There are people on the inside that can do things in a way that simply can’t be done in the Church. While it seems like a lot of work for what was ultimately a very small thing (though was huge for every queer scout out there, despite the right way spending the past few weeks calling them all rapists and perverts), we often have to work hard for small victories.

So, what’s the difference? What makes the effort of rogue BSA chapters different from the efforts of Ari Hart? The answer, quite simply, is subversion.

The BSA chapters that Dante mentions are actively opposing the national council’s rule. They recognize that there is a behavior they are supposed to engage in, but they refuse to because they consider it reprehensible. Hart, on the other hand, has decided to do what he always does and just hope that somebody braver than he will force his faith to change, or that it miraculously will on its own for no good reason, as if power just fades on its own.

The BSA is changing because people are challenging the system. Hart will likely die thanking god for not having a vagina (or being trans*) every morning for the rest of his life. The Church is unlikely to change in my lifetime because the cash continues to roll in from parishioners who think they’re doing awful things but still pass off their required 10%.

You can change things from the inside of organizations, but it has to be uncomfortable. There is no easy way to tell the people in power that they are wrong. It requires you to challenge their authority, to fight them actively and visibly. If you can hide what you’re doing, it won’t be effective. Fighting means being loud, being noticed, and being counted. Otherwise, how can anyone tell the difference between being against something and being part of it?

Help Out A Friend

Hey guys,

Know I’ve been quiet due to deadlines at work. Have plenty to say as soon as I have a moment to write, but right now I really would love to ask each and every one of your a favor.

My friend JP Corwyn is a professional musician who is within a few votes of winning a contest to have one of his songs close out the season finale of Vampire Diaries on the CW tomorrow. It has been a pitched battle with another person, but it looks like he can pull it out. But today is the last day to vote, and every extra vote counts.

And for you social justice oriented people (like me) out there, he’s also blind, so you have to benefit of not only supporting an amazing musician, but helping somebody with a disability get some recognition for their incredible work. This is win-win.

So take a few second to head over to the Facebook page and just click to vote. Please, guys, help this man out. The artist is JP Corwyn and the song is Free. And if you can, please also spread the word and share this around. It’s the last day, and every vote counts.

I don’t like to ask you guys for stuff, but this is so simple and it could really change the life of somebody who greatly deserves it.

Various and Whateverthehell

Since I’ve been so busy, it’s time to just have a quick link roundup to cover everything I’ve wanted to talk about.

Miss America Chavez (designed by Jamie McKelvie, personal work 2013)

Absolutely beautiful comic about somebody who’s girlfriend is transitioning. For only a few panels with a bunny and a frog and a bear, this is really touching.

– More from the annals of “Feminism is already working on men’s rights issues.”

– A young man in Toronto is sexually assaulted by four women, and Rosie DiManno of The Star insults him. This lowlife seems to think that most men would love to be non-consensually ganged up on by four women. Look also for the fat shaming, slut shaming, and homophobia embedded in her assumptions about the perpetrators.

– A Christian school has decided that a married lesbian couple needs to get a divorce in order for their child to keep going to that school. Why they would want to send their kid to such a backward place, I have no idea, but since this is in Mpumalanga, South Africa, I’m sure there are other factors involved.

– Speaking of schools being the absolute worst, a Polk County high school (which is less than an hour from me) has expelled a student for a science experiment that created a small bang and some smoke but didn’t hurt anyone. JT writes about it and suggests how you can write a polite and well considered email to the school administrator explaining why this is an overreaction. Also read the comments in which they ask whether the school’s football players are expelled for breaking the school’s policy against hitting other students every time they tackle somebody.

“Angering the pope” should be an euphemism for masturbation now. Like “choking the bishop”, really.

– Researchers at IBM have made a movie by manipulating atoms on a copper surface and filming it. This is really, really awesome.

Ok, enough procrastinating. Back to work.

Quantum Palaver

I spend a lot of time ranting here about the religious right and their absurd ideas about the universe, but make no mistake, I am just as hard on the new age left when they try to pull those sorts of stunts. It’s only that they have little to no power to affect the lives of others (or even themselves) that keeps them out of my writing. That being said, sometimes something so profoundly stupid is said, I have no choice but to respond.

Several days ago, a number of pseudoscientific frauds, including Deepak Chopra, wrote a letter to TED complaining that they’re being censored, something about freedom of ideas, upset that what they do isn’t considered real science, etc. The reason for this is that  TEDx talks by Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock, two people who have done legitimate work early in their careers but somewhere along the way abjured science for endless “what if” games, we not posted on the main TEDx site, but rather on a site for talks that don’t really meet the criteria of advancing legitimate ideas for real discussion that TED tries to promote.

For the most part, Jerry Coyne has fun reveling in the fact that such a celebrated con artist as Chopra is upset by the militant atheist bloggers like himself who helped convince TED that they didn’t want to be involved with parapsychologists and people who spend their time searching for mythological items. I can’t blame him, that’s a pretty high honor. How many people must be trying to point out that Chopra and his ilk are full of shit on a daily basis? It would be like Timmy Dolan complaining about attractive, young, long-haired bloggers making life difficult for him.

But here’s the part where I lost it.

The reason becomes clear when you discover that non-local consciousness means the possibility that there is mind outside the human brain or even outside material reality, that a conscious mind is in some way intrinsic to the quantum universe, and that we all are quantum entangled.

Ok, stop right there. No. No, no, no. That’s not what that means. At all.

Which is why we’re going to discuss a little quantum physics. Don’t worry, I’ll try to make it as simple as possible.

“Quantum physics” does not mean “mind over matter.” That is the first thing that we need to understand before moving forward. You will hear a lot from new agers about how quantum physics suggests that good, happy, fuzzy feelings make the world an objectively better place by altering the fabric of existence with your mind. But let’s examine what they mean.

To start with, this is going to be difficult because while both sides of this debate use the terms of quantum physics, only one side actually employs the math of quantum physics, so I can’t show you where Chopra and Co. (which would be a great name for a rock band) got their math wrong. They have no math. And I struggle with math, so I wouldn’t be the best person to find their mistakes. But at least we can look at claims and see what they really mean. There will be a Tl;dr summary at the end of the big section, for those who don’t love physics.

Heisenberg and the Observer Effect

The first thing that you will notice about the claims of people like Chopra is that much of their nonsense stems from the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which says that we can never know the exact position and velocity of an electron at the same time, and the Observer Effect, which says that the act of measuring something that exists in a quantum state (one that is undetermined) will actually make it deterministic. Here’s a good explanation of what quantum is examining:

In quantum mechanics we learn that the behavior of the very smallest objects (like electrons, for example) is very unlike the behavior of everyday things like baseballs. When we throw a baseball at a wall, we can predict where it will be during its flight, where it will hit the wall, how it will bounce, and what it will do afterward.

When we fire an electron at a plate with two closely spaced slits in it, and detect the electron on a screen behind these slits, the behavior of the electron is the same as that of a wave in that it can actually go though both holes at once. This may seem odd, but its true. If we repeat this experiment lots of times with lots of electrons, we see that some positions on the screen will have been hit by many electrons and some will have been hit by none. The observed “interference pattern” for these electrons is evidence of their dual wave-particle nature, and is well described by thinking of each electron as a superposition of two “states”, one that goes through one slit, one that goes through the other.

Chopra argues that because we can’t know where electrons are and where they’re going at the same time, and because the act of observation seems to make it so that one “state” is “chosen” over the other, then that means that we can choose the direction of electrons and, if we observe really, really hard, get enough electrons to go our way and therefore change the whole universe.

The problem with this is so manifold I hardly know where to begin. The first is that, as was pointed out in the quote, electrons don’t behave the same way as larger objects. Just because larger objects have electrons in them does not mean that making a bunch of electrons move in a certain way makes the object do that, and even if you could control the direction of large objects via their electrons, that doesn’t mean that the universe can be bent to your will.

The second problem is that there is no way to “choose” a direction for an electron to go. Ideas like The Secret try to push this idea that just expecting something to be true will make it true by “magnetically” pulling what you want to you via the concept of “like attracts like.” They even got Fred Alan Wolf, an actually physicist, to throw his support to this notion, but as is the case with most woo-ish nonsense, Wolf lends his pHD to those pushing the “quantum means like attracts like” crowd to make ridiculous and unsupported statements, then hides behind the training he isn’t using to come to those conclusions. If a medical doctor did the stuff Wolf does, they would be sued for malpractice.

Finally, even if it meant something to determine the direction of electrons, and even if we could specifically determine what direction they would go in, most of us have no way of doing so. This is where the woomeisters really try to pull a fast one. This is the informal logical fallacy known as Equivocation, which is using a word with two definitions to mean one thing when you actually mean the other. In this case, the word is “observer.”

The “Observer Effect” does not mean that when you look at an electron, it goes from being in multiple, quantum states to only being in one state. If that were the case, we wouldn’t know they were even in multiple, quantum states to begin with. What “observe” means, in this case, is to take scientific measurements of, not just to look at. The reason why electrons go from being in multiple states to just one is that the act of measuring forces that to happen.

Think of it like this: imagine you have a large bowl of water with a bullet vibe on the bottom. The surface of the water is calm, but you know that if that vibe is going, the water could be shaking like crazy down at the bottom, and you want to know whether the vibe is on or not. So you, like the good scientist you are, get some measuring tools to put into the water to see if it’s moving. However, by putting the measuring tools into the water, you’re disturbing the water, making sure that it’s moving. Whether the bullet vibe was on or not, the water is now in motion because of your attempt to measure. Before that, however, we couldn’t know whether it was in motion or not, and no amount of staring at it would have changed that.

Wave Function Collapse

Another thing that you’ll hear from Chopra is that “consciousness is a series of wave function collapses”. Basically, the argument seems to be that since there seems to be no physical “seat of the soul” or observable (using the scientific definition) evidence of a spirit or consciousness, that that clearly means they exist in a state of being that is superimposed on the material world and the act of looking around us makes the infinitely possible state of the universe collapse into a single one that we see via the above-mentioned observer effect. This is known as “quantum consciousness”, I believe, but it’s hard to tell for certain as people like Chopra excel at saying absolutely nothing at length.

Let’s do some math.

 | \psi \rangle = \sum_i c_i | \phi_i \rangle .

That equation above represents a wave function. I know it looks complicated, but it’s not that bad. The phi i at the end there represents all of the possible “alternative” states, which could be denoted as phi 1, phi 2, phi 3, etc. These each represent a different eigenstate, which basically is just the value around which other things change. For the math to work, an observable aspect of any given eigenstate is picked (either position or momentum, remember Heisenberg) and assigned an eiganvalue, ei, of the system.

So, what we have here is a bunch of possibilities and an equation to describe (not predict) them. We also have a hypothesis that if an electron is at a specific place, it will match at least one of the observations that we gave an eiganvalue to. So now we can test to see which one it is. The problem is that when we test it, we jostle and shake those electrons in the process, so like the slit experiment quoted above, we take something that behaves like a wave (going through both slits at once), and “collapsing” it so that it only behaves like a particle (goes through one slit in the metal or the other).

None of that has anything to do with consciousness. The “consciousness” bit was tacked on by a man named Roger Penrose who suggested that since the brain runs on electrical impulses, then it must exist in a probabilistic fashion like other electrons do. Therefore…somehow this means that consciousness exists in some superposition to our perceived position because of reasons. As a result, there is a whole cottage industry of people who push the “quantum consciousness” idea and extrapolate it to mean things it doesn’t.


Tl;dr Summary

We’ve gone into a lot of detail here, and there is so much more that we could go into, but the basic argument of Chopra and Co. is that because the brains are run on electricity, and because electrons behave as waves before they’re observed, then start acting like particles, that means that consciousness exists outside of the body and by thinking at things really hard, you change the way the electrons move, which means you can CONTROL THE UNIVERSE WITH YOUR MIND!

This belief rests mostly on misunderstanding what certain words mean and making logical leaps that aren’t supported by the evidence.

The reason why what Chopra and his gang does isn’t considered real science is because the only way it works is by assuming a very specific spiritual component to everything (i.e. they “know” there’s a soul, but there’s no physical evidence in the body, so clearly this quantum stuff explains where it is because where else could it be?). It makes no predictions that can be tested via experiment, it plays word games to sell books to people who really wish they could alter the universe with their thoughts (which, to be fair, is almost everybody) and think that there’s some secret that con artists like Chopra have because they’re calm and use big words.

I am remarkably happy that TED has decided that woomeisters shouldn’t be a part of the discussion that they’re trying to have. At least, they shouldn’t be taken seriously until such time as they can produce ideas that stand up to legitimate scrutiny. In much the same way that when theology tries to make scientific claims (age of the Earth, whether resurrection is possible, whether humanity as we know it could have descended from a single family, etc.) it should answer them scientifically, when new agers make scientific claims, they should also have to answer them scientifically. Word games and vague associations don’t count as evidence in a scientific context any more than Roberto Benigni’s 1998 Oscar acceptance speech is evidence that he wants to sleep with me (and you).

Literary criticism is very good at playing word games, because authors often play word games. I love doing it because I can tease out meaning from diction and syntax. However, scientists do not use diction and syntax to implant meaning into their work. They are concerned with observation and the implications of what they see. Chopra and Co. keep wanting to find hidden meaning that simply does not exist, and TED has no obligation to continue to allow them to embarrass themselves in front of audiences that know better.