Our lizard brain lives in 9-11

September 11, 2012 Comments off

Last week in our school district, a kid brought a gun into the classroom. He held a class hostage for about 10 minutes before a teacher – his second week on the job out of college – got the gun away from him. In his bag were two more guns, a hatchet, and a small bottle of kerosene. Reports differ but he said he wanted people to “listen to him”.

The big flaw in that plan is that listening is a cerebral-cortex thing; fight and flight are lizard-brain things. It’s hard to do both.  After the Columbine shootings, one of my sons said “This will bring out the stupid in everyone”, and that will almost certainly be the result here. Now our cash-thin school district is talking about guards, metal detectors, and just generally bringing the delightful airport terminal experience into school.

That does not mean there are not real threats to our existence. But they are slow; subtle. For political purposes it’s hard to motivate people, for example, with graphs correlating carbon dioxide and Arctic ice-cover loss. A person with a gun or a bomb is much more effective. So much more so if they are “other”.

We’re less apt to fear when we can reason. And very much less apt to reason when we’re afraid. Immediate fear makes people stupid, and stupid people are easier to control. Politicians who want power know this, and so do terrorists. After 9-11 the extreme right wing – AND the terrorists – got just what they wanted. Interestingly, it was the same thing on both sides.

On this anniversary, I’m just asking. Any chance we could Stop Giving Them What They Want? Is there any possibility we can show a little courage and keep the cerebral cortex in charge? For a change.


  • In fact, the more different the “other” can be made out to be, the less actual threat is needed for the fear effect; look at “Pro-Family” institutions’ constant demonization of gays.
  • Right-wing politicians and other terrorists don’t need to worry about a sudden popularization of rational risk assessment; there’s very little historical precedent for it.
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Atheism Plus, third try

August 28, 2012 Comments off
Atheism Plus logo

Atheism Plus logo

(If you have not heard of Atheism Plus, you won’t miss anything skipping this post. It’s an internal discussion.)

I’ve already written two posts about Atheism Plus, the new movement, or resurgence, or emphasis, or lane, or channel, or (depending who you ask) clique in Atheism, proposed by Jennifer McCreight. But I never published them because developments are moving faster than I can write. In particular, even some of my friends think A+ is a simply terrible idea; a clique, a club, or even a new religion.

Including friends who support diversity and equality. So theoretically we’re on the same side.

I’m not good at conflict, at telling my friends their sincere opinions don’t match my own. It saddens me more than it inspires me, so my typing fingers come to a stop. I have thoughts, but I can’t get them out. Here, I am forcing them.

When I hear; “But we have always supported GLBT equality!” or “We’ve always welcomed women here!” it sounds to me like “But not all Christians are like that!” Well, of course they’re not. If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit. At least, acquit yourself.

When I hear someone complaining that A+ rhetoric is too exclusive or extreme, it sounds like “I’ll tell them when they’re being mistreated, and when it’s time to complain and how. Until then, they should shut up!”

But most of all – sorry if this is hard to hear – I hear privilege. I hear calls to courage from someone who is comfortable and safe.

We atheists are right to complain about it when one of us faces job discrimination, or has to listen to unwelcome proselytizing, or one of our signs get torn down, or someone threatens us. Or a Darwin Fish is torn off one of our cars or some church puts up a stupid sign. Once in a great while (in this country) there are actual acts of violence against one of us.

But just for perspective, something like one out of five women have been raped. Three women every day are murdered by their intimate partner. And those crimes don’t exist as outliers far away from other kinds of abuse. Adjacent to them is every kind of intimidation, condescension, discrimination and downright harassment imaginable that women face every day. Walk down the street? Get propositioned by someone who could kill you with his bare hands. Buy coffee? Dude stares at your chest. Get into an elevator? Make a high-stakes calculation first. Work in an office? Maintain careful distance from male co-workers because of multiple experiences. So probably three out of the remaining four women have been in some pretty dicey situations, looking for an exit.

A lot of misogyny is religiously based, but apparently a lot of it is cultural, too. When atheist women try to take part in atheist events and are threatened with rape, and their home addresses are published, there could be a good reason why they take it a scoche more seriously than we dangly d00ds do.  Because we’d be crapping our pants if we had to face it. With our testosterone levels, we’d be packing heat and mace and a hatchet for good measure, and anybody who laid a hand on us would get it back gift-wrapped. But if women so much as talk about their experiences, they’re called liars and feminist bitches.

So, to my good friends who don’t support A+, I say this: You don’t have to. You wouldn’t be my friend in the first place if I thought you weren’t OK with diversity or if you mistreated people who have reason to be afraid. Good on you for that. But I’m putting my support behind A+. If women generally and GLBTQ minorities specifically seem just a little tetchy, I’m gonna consider how the world might look from their point of view.

I’ve got some friends whom I respect deeply who support A+. It may not be the perfect answer – heaven knows there’s been enough second-guessing from the safe and comfortable to sell it wholesale – but it’s their solution. The issues they’re highlighting have been weighing on my mind for a long time. I’m not anybody’s protector but I know how to stand alongside a friend when they’re doing something important.

OK that’s it. Publishing this one.

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The End. But in the meantime…

August 26, 2012 Comments off

I just take pictures of things that catch my attention. Bugs, birds, plants, the play of sunlight in falling rain. And Death.

Bird, on road

I’m aware that most people turn away, but we really shouldn’t. There is so much to be learned: as a part of life on Earth, death is worthy of study. And if we can get over our culturally-driven revulsion for a moment, death is a silent prophecy for us. A message, to appreciate the wonder and uniqueness of what we have and what we are.

There are about 75 billion tonnes of living mass on the Earth – all of it amazing in its intricacy, and we are lucky enough to be among the minuscule fraction that is conscious. It seems like a lot until you compare it to the six sextillion tonnes of nonliving and insensate planet that we live on, and the rest of the solar system’s mass is about 4.6 billion times as much as the planet. To the best of our knowledge, this life is the only one we have, on this little planet, orbiting around the gravity well of a 1.99×10^30 tonne fusion reactor.

Again, that sounds like a lot – but it’s mostly empty space. You have to look hard to even find Jupiter.

When you sleep tonight, think on this: as far as we know the universe does not sleep, nor dream. Nor have coffee in the morning. Nor watch the sun come up. It is the sun coming up, but it doesn’t know. We do know.

Yes, we struggle, and sometimes we’re the bird on the pavement. But until then, look up. Look around. Use your senses. Revel even in the icky stuff – because you are here to know about it.

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For all you would-be heroes who think you’ll save the day by carrying a gun…

August 25, 2012 10 comments

(The ballistics report is back from the Empire State shooting. It contains some surprises. Or maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. This is a long post; I won’t be offended if you go right to the link at the end.)

An entertainment culture lives partly in the real world, and partly in a fantasy world. People fantasize all the time about winning the lottery: they think about helping their relatives, buying a better house, traveling. And whenever there’s a public shooting, people fantasize about what they would do if they were there… with a gun.

C’mon, gun-advocate; admit it. When you write huffy comments under news stories saying;  ”If only a citizen with a gun had been there, it wouldn’t have gone on so long! Lives would have been saved!” – you’re talking about yourself. Aren’t you.

How it’s gonna go down

Of course, you’d need some training. Probably take a course! And maybe practice at the gun range. And in the morning, you’d slip that weight into your concealed holster, along with your watch, your keys, and your wallet. Just another ordinary day, for an armed citizen in Free America.

Then one day, when you least expect it, someone opens up on the crowd. “Pop! Pop! Pop!” and you hear a ricochet “Pop! Bwrrrrrew!” and people are screaming and you can smell powder and the exits clog up instantly. And they’re all helpless against the murderous insanity of the shooter. All of them… except you.

Instead of hitting the deck, you pull out your gun as you rise to your feet. Standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, and a solid, two-handed grip, you pull back the hammer and slip your finger into the trigger guard. “Drop your weapon!”, you call out. All motion in the room stops. The crowd looks from the shooter to you. The shooter wheels around to see you standing there, grimly determined that if anyone else is to be shot, it will be him.

He raises his gun in your direction. You squeeze your trigger; the gun bucks in your hand. He drops his gun and falls to the floor, nursing a fatal wound.

Afterward, you receive the gratitude and appreciation of the community and law enforcement. Interviewed by a local news program – or possibly on FOX News, you say; “My heart was pounding, but this is exactly what I trained for. I had to stop him. Innocent lives were at stake.”

Yeah. Damn, you’re cool.

The professional fantasy

Like most people, you think that if you had professional tools in your hands, you could do what professionals do. Given a Ferrari, you could do pretty well at rally racing. With ten thousand dollars worth of photo equipment, you could do sports photography as well as those guys in Sports Illustrated. Pretty close, anyway.

The fantasy starts to break down if you think about cooking a gourmet meal, if only you had… what, better pots? A magic stirring spoon? But if you’re like most Internet commenters, you’re quite sure that if you had a gun, you could do at least as well as a cop would, if there were a cop on the scene with a gun.

How well do the professionals handle it?

There’s a reason police departments have SWAT teams; they’re specialists. Your everyday officer is a generalist: he has a wide range of skills from giving directions to mediating domestic disputes to stopping a mugger, and he does better at some of them than others. Yes, he has training with the gun; more than you will have, and more practice too. But we learn again and again when someone is perforated for reaching for his wallet or a mentally-challenged person is shot for driving away from a traffic stop: making a discriminating kill is a challenge even for professionals.

Case in point: the Empire State shooter. Dude opens up at a national landmark. He was after a specific individual, but the two veteran – not rookie, but trained, experienced cops didn’t know that. They took down the gunman, all right, but they also injured nine bystanders.

Think about that: these two guys have a better chance at using a gun to effect than you ever will; they’re professionals, with years of experience. And the result? NYPD: Ballistics show all 9 wounded outside Empire State Building were shot by police.

Now suppose two or three ordinary citizens had been there, and pulled out their pieces. Same two cops, same situation, but lots more guns; I’m sure everything would have been just fine.


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Climate denialist catches up. One down, n to go

July 29, 2012 1 comment

Well good for you, Richard Muller 

Richard Muller, a cantankerous but creative physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, who once derided climate change research, then dove in with his own reconstruction of terrestrial temperature changes and confirmed substantial warming, has now concluded that recent warming is “almost entirely” human caused.”

Slow clap…

Sorry, but what we learn from Muller’s op-ed is that he’s finally caught up with the rest of the class. Yes, he’s a physicist, and he didn’t believe in anthropogenic global warming, but you would never have heard of him if it weren’t for the Koch brothers’ money.

Denialist think tanks are always looking for guys like Muller

It’s a fact that even if the scientific community has pretty much figured something out, you can always find a few scientists to say the opposite. The tobacco companies did just that, hiring the Marshall Institute to spread uncertainty about the evidence for tobacco harm.

The oil companies have done the same, finding science spokesmen – and even pouring money into the Heartland institute and other con think tanks. Their mission is to spread doubt about the very solid body of cross-disciplinary evidence that humans are warming the planet by releasing gigatonnes of long-buried carbon.

He did a meta-study to find out what most scientists have been saying all along is correct

Now one of their scientists has gone rogue, and caught up with what climate scientists were saying back in, oh, about the mid 1990’s. Maybe he’ll catch up the rest of the way. I guess we should be excited.

Bully for him. Thanks to oil-money driven denialists like him, we’re only about, oh, 20 years late getting started doing something about an approaching global catastrophe. Before it’s all done with, there will be flooded cities, collapsed agriculture, refugees, a crashed global economy, probably a few wars, and a lot of dead people.

And Muller’s just one denialist of many. I wonder how they’re going to spin this?


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The uplifting broken knee of inspiration

July 23, 2012 2 comments

If you have not read anything by Greta Christina, you are in for a treat. She’s one of those wonderfully genuine people who brings the humanity to her life and her writing. So make her acquaintance, at least on the Interwebs; you will be glad you did.

Anyway, Greta busted up her knee, and if she were like most of us she would have posted something on her blog along the lines of “Oh, damn it, I busted my knee, and it sucks, and FML and everything sucks…”

But she is not like most of us. Instead, she found more reasons to be thankful, and to say something that elevated my day, than most of us do even on a good day. I don’t know about you but I can use an uplifting message. It’s about progress we’ve made in medical science, and about progress in how society values lives and loves that are different from the privileged set of people who think of themselves as “approved”.  In some corners, at least, we’re making room for people to love one another, and to care for one another in painful times.

History, my bum knee, and some people I want to thank

Thank YOU, Greta.

Go read! I dunno about you, but this is what I’m going to think about today. It’s high time for something that will help you feel a bit optimistic for a change.


  • In an update, Greta says her knee will probably recover, though it will be a while before she gets back to dancing with Ingrid.
  • Crikey, just when I read an uplifting, wonderful story about progress, Sally Ride dies, and in the same story we find out that she had a same-sex partner of 27 years… who will not be able to collect her federal benefits. And then Mitt Goddamn Romney goes and gushes about what a great hero Ride was. Romney the Mormon, whose church spent $22m to help pass Prop 8 denying marriage equality to Ride among others. Mitt, you’re a despicable piece of human garbage; you aren’t allowed to say her name until you apologize and call for the repeal of Prop 8 and DOMA.
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Other proposed solutions

July 22, 2012 8 comments

There’s no shortage of solutions out there for the theater-shooter guy. Just ask anyone, and stand well back.

No costumes

Some theaters will be banning costumes. The sheer stupidity, the amazing obtuseness of this “solution” just staggers me. First of all, define “costume”. Then kick out everyone with an overcoat, a shoulder bag, or a purse. Or any theme-related makeup. Wait – that kid has green hair and The Hulk has green hair – kick him out! That woman looks is wearing black and Catwoman wears black… it’s a costume!

Also, are people who wear costumes a danger? How much ordinary-fun behavior are we willing to restrict because of whatever monster is hiding in our maybe-closet?

Security guards!

Then there are people who want to put security guards at every entrance to every theater. By my count that would be about a bazillion security guards, and if the TSA has taught us anything, it’s that effective security guards are not so easy to find.

What should they watch for? “Suspicious people?” Anyone with a cane? Should we start frisking people?

One way to kill a lot of people in theaters is to raise the portion sizes at the snack bar. Sell enormous candy bars, sodas, and popcorns, with lots of salt and hydrogenated imitation butter. Results guaranteed, though the actual drama takes place in hospital rooms much later.

Metal detectors

Really? maybe we should just reproduce the whole airport experience in theaters. And while we’re at it, schools and stores and shopping malls. And churches – there have been more church shootings by far than theater shootings.

More mental health funding

OK, I kinda like this one. Not to say that it would have any effect on the frequency of shootings. But it might reduce suicides. Actually anti-bullying measures in schools would probably do more good in the long run.

Gun Control

There may be some merit to this one. The problem is that while there are people who propose a wide range of sensible limitations on gun traffic and ownership, there are also people who won’t even discuss it. All they can talk about is their Dirty-Harry fantasies. I covered them in the previous post.

Rare events

This theater shooting, well it’s happened one time in the whole history of theaters. There’s nothing you can do to prevent something that happens that rarely. Which means, first of all, don’t worry when you go to the theater. But it also means, despite the part of our brains that insist there must be a solution, there probably isn’t. You can regularize solutions for regular events – not for extreme outliers. The somewhat (but not unusually) unpleasant grad student who turns out to be a total psycho and shoots up a theater? You can’t prevent what you can’t predict. Mourn the dead, comfort the living, and spend your energy on solving problems that kill people wholesale, like texting and driving (about six thousand people per year).

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Our gun fantasies

July 22, 2012 6 comments

On Facebook:

If just one armed citizen had been there to deliver a well-placed shot, fatalities and injuries would have been reduced. Nevertheless you will be hearing calls to restrict Americans’ gun rights. SUPPORT THE SECOND AMENDMENT

I can’t do it. I just can’t argue with these people. Somewhere in their heads they really think if they’d been there with a gun, they could have stopped that guy. In a dark theater full of tear gas and screaming people, while terrified, and (let’s face it) with skillz honed by threatening paper targets and video games.


The armed hero

It isn’t enough to go to a gun range and put holes in paper targets. Maybe paintball twice a week would help. Certainly combat experience would help. But the average person simply has not built the mental foundation for a discriminating kill during a crisis situation.

On the TV series Person Of Interest, there’s a guy who’s like this super-deadly ex-spy, and when someone’s holding someone else hostage, he whips out his gun and puts a bullet right through their forehead. And the bad guy falls to the ground and the hostage (though traumatized) is safe. You are not that person. I imagine there are people like that, but not you. If you think you are that person, you are delusional. Even if you are a nice person and you mean well.

The term “Fog Of War” comes to mind, and it was coined by actual soldiers. Anybody with combat experience want to weigh in on this?  How do you think the average “armed citizen” would fare in that theater?

Next post: Proposed Solutions

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Intelligent Design My Ass, part 10^4

July 17, 2012 3 comments

Two-thirty AM for the past I don’t know how many nights, I lie awake. My normally sensitive skin turns up to 11, alerting my brain; “Emergency! Microscopic fibre touching left cheek!” A 20-year-old hernia repair decides to hurt. My hip reminds me of that time I landed on it; my shoulder joins the chorus. I am alerted to the presence of varicose veins in my legs and in places I shan’t mention. A muscle tremor in my leg keeps time. My hands decide this would be a good time to remind me I have a touch of arthritis.

I have not listened to the radio for days, but a song fragment loops endlessly in my head.

It is now four-thirty AM; my alarm clock will go off soon. A long work day looms ahead and I am desperate for sleep. I am still feeling everything that touches me; in a nonsensical way much of it translates as pain.

Creationists find evolution difficult to “believe” but it makes perfect sense to me that what passes for my nervous system is a haphazardly evolved result of tetrapod population dynamics. Parts of the brain that suited some survival purpose once upon a time are now used to speculate about the universe. The neurochemistry of an advanced ape that wouldn’t have lived past forty now must be kept running much longer.

What I can’t fathom is the notion that a loving, all-knowing Intelligent Designer sketched out this mess on purpose.

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There’s small steps, and then phony steps

July 14, 2012 2 comments

Some products are their own mockery. Here’s a water bottle that makes fascinating reading.

Smaller Cap = Less Plastic

Did you notice this bottle has an Eco-Slim Cap? This is part of our ongoing effort to reduce our impact on the environment. This bottle and cap contain an average of 20% less plastic than our original 500ml Eco-Shape bottle and cap. Be Green.

“Be Green”?  If we were Being Green, we would stop buying this product. So yes, I encourage everyone to Be Green. Get a re-usable bottle and re-use it.

If they really want to “reduce their impact on the environment”, they should stop manufacturing these things and apologize to people who live in coastal cities and on Pacific islands, because the relative carbon-footprint of this product is fantastically out of proportion to the benefit relative to the nearest faucet. To say nothing of the plain old pollution of plastics production.

Once upon a time, if people in a modern country wanted to drink water, they poured it out of a faucet into a glass. Or into a pitcher and brought several glasses into a meeting. Or filled a re-usable water bottle and carried it with them. The quality was excellent and cost, minimal. Waste and environmental impact, also minimal. 20 years ago if you had told me that someday the practice of selling bottled water would be big industry, I’d have laughed at you.

Fact is, we’re in trouble and making tiny little adjustments for advertising’s sake, isn’t helping. We need big strides, not self-congratulation over slimmer caps.

Every time I mock bottled water, some wag says; “There are times bottled water makes sense” and that is a true statement. But the recycling bins that fill up in a single morning in our hallways, so that the trash cans also fill up?  Um… no. So I’m turning this one over to Willy Wonka.


  • “WARNING: Cap is a small part and poses a CHOKING HAZARD, particularly for children.” I have observed people in our lab, absent-mindedly chewing on bottle caps.
  • “WE CAN ALL MAKE A DIFFERENCE PLEASE RECYCLE” Yes indeed, if you use bottled water, please recycle the abominable thing.
  • A co-worker notes that the Eco-Slim cap is also harder to get off the damn bottle.
  • I’ve previously dissed Ethos Water for charity profiteering, and Green Planet Water for posing as an environmentally responsible product by virtue of the plant-based plastic used in its manufacture. And I’ve boggled at the environmental time bomb that derives from the sheer scale of our consumption, including the two million plastic beverage bottles the US uses every five minutes.
  • Our building will soon be getting hallway water-bottle refilling stations like they have in the athletic center. That will be great!
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