March 3rd, 2009

sheep, stupidity, sheeple

Ominous News for Atheists

I came across this article about religious intolerance today:

Research on political intolerance "ominous" for atheist Americans
James L. Gibson, professor of government at Washington University in Saint Louis, has some dire data for atheists.

While his article is meant to show that the intolerance of traditionalists is not limited to antipathy for atheists, Gibson calls his findings "particularly ominous" for nonbelievers, and it's hard to disagree. 47 percent of traditionalists favored denial of political rights in some form to atheists, a number that Gibson rightly calls "politically potent." There are real consequences to such intense dislike among so much of electorate toward one law-abiding group.

More concisely: If your religious beliefs (or lack thereof) fall outside the mainstream, you have two choices when dealing with said mainstream. You can either refrain from mentioning your beliefs in context of any attempt to convince people of something -- or you can mention your beliefs and have them undermine people's willingness to listen to you. A great deal of the time, it doesn't matter if you're right; it only matters if you're likable and convincing. This is tedious, and ultimately leads to trouble because it encourages people to say what others want to hear, not the truth.
moment of silence, candle

Why I Light a Candle in the Darkness

Someone I know recently lost a relative to suicide. The implications included depression exacerbated by the dire economic slump. I can understand being desperate enough to chew off one's leg to escape a trap, which is what suicide sometimes is. But it's a bitter and miserable thing to be left behind, because the survivors are the ones who have to clean up the mess, emotional and otherwise. So I sympathize with them too.

If you wonder why I write about some of the things I do -- about gender studies and identity and equality, about spirituality and tolerance, about economics and environment and saving the world, about family skills and communication and community -- it's because of things like this. Because I want the world to be a challenging but ultimately worthwhile place to live, that rewards honest work better than chicanery or indolence. Because I don't want it to be a place so devoid of hope and opportunity that desperate people in increasing numbers feel driven to smash the windows of their souls and crawl out through the shards into the everyonder.

We're working on it. Even if I have to walk into the wind with a hand cupped around my little candleflame, I would rather do that than merely sit and curse the dark, because even if it doesn't work, I'll be able to say I tried. And now and then, someone pauses to light a candle from mine ... or relight mine when it's gone out. We are sparks in the darkness. See how we shine.

Support Health Care Reform

This is not my area of responsibility, but it's too important to ignore. The number of Americans without health insurance is skyrocketing, and even many with insurance find the costs of insurance and care destructive. Health care bills are a leading cause of bankruptcy -- not even just personal anymore, but businesses too! You can follow all the rules and still have your life destroyed by a single illness or accident to anyone in your budgetfamily. The exorbitant expense isn't leading to excellent care; America ranks poorly on planetwide health comparisons. When people are unhealthy and stressed, they are less able to contribute to the economy and society, if one needs a practical rather than ethical reason to change the current system.

Some politicians are arguing that we can't afford to fix health care right now. I say -- we can't afford NOT to. The system is not working; it's falling apart; and the best we can do now is change it before it explodes. There's no fault tolerance left; the system is always running past its ideal maximum, always strained. It could not handle a serious, widescale problem. That's bad. This needs to be fixed immediately.

The following pitch came from MoveOn. Please help if you can.

In just 48 hours, President Obama will convene a health care reform summit at the White House.

And boy, do we need it. The rising cost of health insurance is forcing more and more companies to cut jobs or go out of business.1

Fixing health care is a key part of fixing the economy.

But Congress has to make it happen, and in the last few days, too many members of Congress have been on TV saying that we can't afford to fix our health care system right now.2 On the eve of this summit, we need to let them know that the truth is, we can't afford NOT to.

Over 200,000 of us have already signed the petition. Can you help us get to 250,000 in the next two days?

Please forward this email to friends and family who support health care reform. Our allies will deliver the petition to Congress at the actual summit itself.

Click here to sign the petition:

The petition says: "Don't let the insurance lobbyists delay health care any longer. In this economic crisis, we can't afford NOT to pass quality, affordable health care for all this year."

Obama is really coming out swinging against the insurance lobbyists-some of the main opponents of quality, affordable health care for all. After announcing his budget's major investment in health care, he said:

"I know these steps won't sit well with the special interests and the lobbyists who are invested in the old way of doing business, and I know they're gearing up for a fight as we speak. My message to them is this: So am I."3

Now the question is: Are we? Are you? This fight is going to take place in Congress, so the thing we need to do right now is flood their offices with our support.

In just two days, our health care allies will be attending Obama's big health care summit, and they'll deliver your signature to Congress right then and there. Click here to add your name:

-Noah, Lenore, Justin, Marika and the rest of the team

1. "Obama says healthcare fix could help save economy," AFP, March 3, 2009

2. "Aides Defend President's Budget; White House and Fiscal Conservatives Set for Showdown," The Washington Post, March 2, 2009

"Obama's Budget: A Bold Vision To Revamp Policy," NPR, February 27, 2009

3. "Keeping Promises," The White House, February 28, 2009

Want to support our work? We're entirely funded by our 5 million members-no corporate contributions, no big checks from CEOs. And our tiny staff ensures that small contributions go a long way. Chip in here.

The Torment of Tongues!

Xenolinguists, you want to go read this installment of "Sythyry's Vacation," in which Bard Bloom ruthlessly straps his characters to the rack of language acquisition and tortures them at length. Note that they beg piteously for mercy despite the fact that it's a closely related language to their native tongue and is described as being regular. *cackle* *rub hands* This is more fun than thumbscrews!

A New Moon Shapes Saturn's Rings

Check out the following report about a newly discovered moon and its influence in Saturn's ring system:

Newfound Moon May Be Source of Outer Saturn Ring
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has found within Saturn’s G ring an embedded moonlet that appears as a faint, moving pinprick of light. Scientists believe it is a main source of the G ring and its single ring arc. Cassini imaging scientists analyzing images acquired over the course of about 600 days found the tiny moonlet, half a kilometer (about a third of a mile) across, embedded within a partial ring, or ring arc, previously found by Cassini in Saturn’s tenuous G ring.

Three Good Things

Someone recently suggested that I point out some things that I am happy with in our society. After some thought, I came up with:

1) It produces millions of books, many of them worth reading.
2) We elected a multiracial President who is, thus far, doing more good than harm.
3) Despite having the capacity several times over, we have not yet actually destroyed civilization.

What are three good things that come to mind for you?

Hardest Languages to Learn?

Here's an interesting essay about what are considered the hardest languages to learn.

I've studied Russian formally. It wasn't that hard; a bit of a stretch, but only a bit. I enjoyed it.

I've studied Japanese formally. The spoken language is lovely; it was a little harder for me than Russian. The written language, alas, was more than my eyeballs could handle, so I had to give it up.

I've studied Arabic (also Turkish and Farsi) informally but in some depth while using them as inspiration for invented languages. They're not impossible. The writing system ... I admit, I looked at it and thought, "I'll never be street-literate in that either," and haven't attempted to learn how to read it.

A Baby-Centered Society?

haikujaguar tipped me to this fascinating article. It hypothesizes that human culture and nature evolved out of a need for shared childcare. I find this plausible.

In a Helpless Baby, the Roots of Our Social Glue
In the view of the primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, the extraordinary social skills of an infant are at the heart of what makes us human. Through its ability to solicit and secure the attentive care not just of its mother but of many others in its sensory purview, a baby promotes many of the behaviors and emotions that we prize in ourselves and that often distinguish us from other animals, including a willingness to share, to cooperate with strangers, to relax one’s guard, uncurl one’s lip and widen one’s pronoun circle beyond the stifling confines of me, myself and mine.

This makes me wonder where bonobos fall on the scale of cooperative vs. competitive breeding.

However, the article also makes me even more worried about some social trends of recent decades. As families fragment, we lose the multiplicity of caregivers. It is tremendously difficult for one adult to raise a human child, yet that's happening more and more. Fewer and fewer adolescents grow up surrounded by grandmothers and aunts to teach them childcare by handing them younger siblings or cousins. That means a fair number of parents arrive at parenthood with no prior experience. Any zookeeper can tell you that's trouble; in animals, it runs a high risk of infant abandonment, abuse, neglect, or harm through plain ignorance of knowing what to do. These are problems that, indeed, are worsening in modern culture. In a mobile society, we have less and less continuity of friends and family while children grow up. This means less support for children, and less invigoration for adults and especially elders. And trust? It's gone. The default assumption now is that anyone past puberty is a potential child molester. (That's probably the most destructive meme since "Civilization must be presevered at ALL costs.") People are less and less inclined to let anyone else watch their children. This exhausts the parent(s), minimizes socialization for the children, and separates other adults from contact with children. Who wants to jump through all the hoops of gaining trust and maybe going through a frigging background check, and invest time and resources in forming a relationship with a child, only to have them move away after a year or few? That's too draining to keep at it, for most people, so they don't. Fathers are less and less likely to be involved in their children's lives as anything more than a child support check, and it's not necessarily the father's fault anymore -- more and more mothers are choosing to walk away with the baby. Elders, who evolved in part for the purpose of providing education and material resources for their grandchildren, are increasingly marginalized. With no vital purpose, and without close contact with the vitalizing force of young children, they wither away. And the whole intergenerational fabric of society unravels on every level. This is not good.