Sunday, December 28, 2014

About Tim Minchin

“I follow all you guys – or I follow more pro-sciencey, feminist commentators than anyone else – because I’m trying to put my face in all this stuff; this notion that I am suddenly a cisgendered, privileged person whose voice is . . .” He trails off. “Who needs to shut up.”

That quote is from the article Tim Minchin: The satirist who ran out of upwards to punch and I highly recommend reading it.

I adore that man. This article is really good and sort of captures some of what is just great about Tim Minchin, like his introspection and reevaluation of his own work in its cultural context and willingness to change, to improve, how he sees things, even if it means abandoning past views or even his own work.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Abstinence Education via Aaron Schock

My Congressional Representative, Aaron Schock (R), has voted in favor of the amended version of the newly passed temporary federal budget that encourages and funds even more teaching of abstinence only sex education in public schools.

Here is what that section of the bill says:
That of the funds made available under this heading, $5,000,000 shall be for making competitive grants to provide abstinence education (as defined by section 510(b)(2)(A)–(H) of the Social Security Act) to adolescents, and for Federal costs of administering the grant: Provided further, That grants made under the authority of section 510(b)(2)(A)–(H) of the Social Security Act shall be made only to public and private entities that agree that, with respect to an adolescent to whom the entities provide abstinence education under such grant, the entities will not provide to that adolescent any other education regarding sexual conduct, except that, in the case of an entity expressly required by law to provide health information or services the adolescent shall not be precluded from seeking health information or services from the entity in a different setting than the setting in which abstinence education was provided 

You can find the full text of the amended bill at the following link. The relevant items are on pages 782 and 783:…/CPRT-113HPRT…/pdf/CPRT-113HPRT91668.pdf

Voting by Congressional Representatives on this Amended bill are here:

Remember this when you hear someone say that Aaron Schock is a moderate Republican. Moderates don't vote to intentionally under educate children using the objectively miserable failure that is abstinence only sex education. This is the voting record of religious extremists and the willfully obtuse. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Why Do We Care About Celebrities? Gossip

I think the reason we care is gossip. Gossip is part of being in a human community, it binds us, and polices our behavior to acknowledge norms. This works pretty well in smallish groups defined by nearly daily personal interaction. And important members of the tribe are defined in part by having a personal relationship with the most people and having the most people care about their lives. But modern mass communication hijacks this feature of human social behavior and helps us treat famous people as though they are part of our own tribe. We know things about their personal lives that we shouldn't given that they aren't actually in our social circle, but still we know these things and are drawn to learn more of these things because the other people in our tribe do too, as though the celebrities are important -- like tribal elders or great leaders or something -- even though they aren't any of those things in our actual social group/tribe.

Gossip can be destructive and mean. It can be used to intentionally spread lies or exaggerations about people to "put them in their place." And of course the policing of behavior can backfire on the excessive gossiper too, making them a source of scorn in the community. But even when used in means ways, the overall effect on the tribe is bonding, even if it is bonding in dislike of someone. I'm inclined to think of gossip less as a good or bad thing and more as mere part of what defines a social group, even playing a role in defining who is in the tribe and who isn't because no one knows or cares about them. We gossip about the people who matter to us and to our tribe -- but this sure does get weirdly applied in a mass communication culture of hundreds of millions of people. Hence celebrities we know a lot about but don't actually know and the painful obsession some people have in tearing celebrities down, of putting them in their place.

There is no doubt that there are famous people who are famous largely because of their own self promotion -- the Kardashians. But there are also plenty of performers who don't try to attract attention in their daily lives, but who are harassed endlessly by the press and the public. They can't go shopping, go on a date, take a vacation, etc. without ending up in the celebrity press -- their lives offered up to us to consume and gossip about, not because their daily lives are noteworthy, but because they are famous and therefore interesting to us. On the one hand, they are famous and possibly wealthy and certainly enviable -- giving up aspects of their privacy sure seems like a reasonable trade off. On the other hand, it must suck to be largely unable to do ordinary things without being harassed, to be critiqued by total strangers for every pound gained, for every bad haircut, or to have their romantic relationships scrutinized to a degree most of us wouldn't tolerate from our friends.

But, gossip isn't all bad. Sometimes it is used to spread information intended to help people or spare their feelings. Like if someone has suffered a personal tragedy that isn't well known. Gossip can spread that news without any need for the person who is suffering to have to keep telling people. And gossip can be used in that situation to encourage other members of the tribe to be nice to the person suffering. Still it is bonding of the tribe and its members, even though it is gossip. Just a feature of human interaction that can be good or bad depending on how it is used.

Friday, December 5, 2014

More on Anti-GMO Nonsense

There are several "Food Babe" type anti-GMO memes making the rounds of social media lately. OK. Let me give you the perspective of someone "on the ground" in this debate.

Labeling products with GMO material in them is going to be a giant pain. How much GMO product in the item will require a label? Nearly every acre of soybeans and field corn in this country are products of genetic engineering. So if only a trace amount of GMO requires a label, then huge swaths of the grocery store will be labeled. What about animals fed from GMO crops (almost all of them), does meat from them require a label? Working out which products should get the label and which shouldn't is going to arbitrary and unjust. Instead, consider that so called organic food is already labeled as such -- odds are that stuff isn't GMO and nearly everything else is to some extent.

Now on to the ancillary point of why label, safety? The assumption apparently being that GMO crops are somehow more dangerous to eat than conventional crops. There simply is no evidence that could be true, let alone that it is true. Study after study have given us the firm conclusion that GMO crops are indistinguishable from their non-GMO counterparts in terms of nutrition or safety. In fact GMO crops have been intensely studied in the past several decades, far more intensely studied than any other agricultural product in American history. The federal USDA, EPA, and FDA as well as some of their state counterparts all require, conduct, and oversee testing of every single new GMO product before it is brought to the market. Ongoing studies of health and environmental effects by government agencies and many universities have been gathering data from the field for close to 30 years and so far all effects have been as predicted -- which is to say there is no reason to assume GMO crops are unsafe or in any way different from their non-GMO counterparts for human or animal consumption.

This labeling nonsense is fear mongering and irresponsibly teaching people to fear GMOs without any good reason. In the next few decades we are going to have to have even more GMO food stuffs available, not just grains but vegetables. This isn't optional, non-GMO plant breeding cannot do enough. In order to feed the growing global population in a world with shifting climates and shrinking farm land, we will need foods that grow under many conditions, produce many vital nutrients, and above all out yield their non-GMO ancestors. Yes, we can, should, and will test these products before, during, and after their release to farmers to use. Yes, we will pull from the market any product with a harmful trait and immediately eliminate that trait from future generations of that crop, this has been done and is easy to do via genetic engineering. In that way we will continue to improve the quality, quantity, reliability and safety of the food supply.