Useful Pets, get ‘em now!

A couple of fantastic commercials, featuring multi-purpose Pet Dog and Pet Cat! No home should be without them.

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Moderating my position

The political compass test -

It’s official, I’m a lefty!

I take these political position quizzes every few years, and my position on the issues has barely changed. Yet every year I find myself more and more disaffected with the progressive side of the nation and more prone to take conservative concerns seriously. I block 90% of left-wing talking points posts, and for every blog I stop reading because it’s too conservative, I purge four or five left-wing outlets from my blogrolls.

So what’s going on?

They say people become more conservative as they get older. But my position on the issues hasn’t changed in the past 20 years, so what could that mean?

I think it’s this: every year I find that the type of conversation I have with people matters far more to me than whether we agree with one another. So rather than searching out one political group or another, I look for discussion venues with ferocious moderation policies.

I’m not the only person doing this. In fact, one of the conservative blogs I follow has attracted so many of us liberal commenters that newbies are disgusted, and often accuse the blogger of running a liberal outlet. It’s not true! I disagree with about 60% of what this blogger writes. Some of his hobby-horses make me roll my eyes so hard I get seasick. After the events in Indiana, I had to ignore him entirely for weeks.

But I went back after the OMG GAYZ fit died down, because that blogger maintains a comments section where we are able to say what we really think without being called out or insulted. Communist, atheist, black, white, gay, straight, pagan, Catholic, fundamentalist, muslim and jewish folks speak up there, and I like the conversation.

How much does following this conservative blog affect me?

It hasn’t changed my positions on policies, but it has changed my positions on people. I still disagree with much of what folks at the blog want to accomplish, but I no longer think they’re evil theocrats or corporate lackeys. They’re people, and their concerns are real. We can attack each other’s positions one day and share recipes the next. When I see commenters there engage one another with grace and kindness, I’m ashamed of how snippy I can sometimes be. I practice being more gentle, taking the other person seriously before firing off my buzzword-filled retort.

I still think most left-wing policies are better, but I don’t want to be part of most progressive conversations online. I want charity and forbearance, not condemnation. I want to interrogate my own side’s sacred positions as well as the opponents’. I want to be treated kindly even when I don’t quite agree or haven’t learned this year’s social justice terminology, and I want to talk about people who disagree with us as if they matter too.

And I really, really, REALLY want to get rid of the suspicion that wanting those things makes me less of a progressive.

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Thoughts on watching ‘Nashville’

Nashville is my favorite show, but watching it sometimes feels like that old game where you say a word over and over until it stops being anything except a sound. That word is ‘strong.’

In the Nashville universe, everything you approve of is ‘strong’ and everything you disapprove of is ‘weak’ or done because the person is ‘afraid.’ Particularly, everything Rayna does is ‘strong,’ even when it contradicts what she did in the previous episode. Though I have no problem with this, because Rayna is perfect, I begin to wonder about the idea of strength after the thirtieth time I’ve heard it invoked.

‘Strong’ isn’t just a Nashville thing. Friends kept telling me I was ‘strong’ when I had cancer, even though all I was doing was lying in a hammock. I occasionally tell someone they’re ‘strong’ when I hear about problems they’e overcoming, secure that they will take it as a great compliment. It feels like an almost too intimate, too important comment to throw around a lot – at least that’s how it feels to me, though I see it used on my Facebook feed almost every week.

What does it mean when something becomes a culture’s go-to compliment? If today’s go-to compliment were ‘white,’ as it once was, we’d ask some pointed questions about it. If it were ‘a real man,’ as it once was, we’d have something to say about that.

‘Strong’ is harder to fit into a narrative of recognized prejudice, nor do I want to create a new one for it. All of us are sometimes strong and sometimes weak, but what does it mean when we enshrine our strong moments in a compliment and an identity we’re eager to claim, while discounting our weak moments? Life currently demands a lot of strength, I get that – but so what? Life currently demands a lot of money too, but we don’t compliment our friends by saying they’re ‘rich.’

How would life look if we turned this lens around? What if instead of finding ways to interpret people’s good actions as ‘strong,’ we applauded the parts of those actions that sprung from ‘weakness’? The fact that this seems like nonsense even as I type it just makes me more suspicious that I’ve been brainwashed, and more anxious to try breaking out of the ‘strong=good’ box.

I don’t even know what these words mean any more. I can only conceive of them in relative terms; the ‘strong’ usually overpower the ‘weak.’ That makes me even more nervous about the way we throw ‘strong’ around nowadays, as if we’ve forgotten that.

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‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’ by Jon Ronson

I preordered this book a while ago, and by the time it was delivered I was having second thoughts. I’d seen so many articles about it and excerpts from it that I wondered if there was anything left to be gained from reading the book itself… after reading it I can say there was both more and less in it than I’d expected.

Ronson’s exploration of public shaming romps through a wide variety of groups, from porn tapings to rehabilitation centers. He meets real criminals, people whose sex lives have become tabloid fodder, and characters we are familiar with – and probably should not be familiar with – from twitter pile-ons. Some of the most interesting stuff I’ve seen in articles about the book is not in the book itself, making it read like volume 1.

Basically, Ronson’s message is that when we participate in casual shaming we are part of a monster that can destroy people for minor infractions of unwritten rules – mob justice. Relatively early in the book his focus shifts to what allows the shamed to recover or to go through the experience unscathed, and here is where he begins to really depress me. Almost all the approaches he investigates, from support groups to vigorous self-defense to being shameless to being cautious forever after to paying thousands of dollars for image management services, let the shaming episode take over the person’s life for years after the folks who enjoyed the twitter storm have forgotten all about it, just as Ronson has forgotten the names of people he shamed before writing this book.

There’s another approach he touches on briefly – the Right to be Forgotten. In the US, this seems to face insuperable free speech challenges, and how can somebody be forgotten on an international internet when not all countries recognize their right to delete information?

Then there’s the burn-it-down approach, which involves destroying the standard that people use to shame you. After all, the effectiveness of a pile-on depends on somebody taking the accusations seriously. Look at tabloids’ exposures of sex scandals. Why did some victims lose their jobs or commit suicide, while others went blithely on their way under the burden of public knowledge? Ronson thinks it’s largely because society as a whole decided ‘who cares?’ about other people’s sex lives. While this isn’t as universal as he makes it sound, it’s true that a lot of sexual behavior that would have been tremendously shaming in the past can be faced down nowadays. Most of the vocal proponents of shaming on twitter would themselves be ashamed to not be sex-positive, or to criticize people’s kinks.

What favorite accusation will be defanged next? Will ‘racist’ and ‘sexist’ go the way of ‘pervert?’ And when they do, will we just have reassorted ourselves into the same social groupings, with the same power dynamics, that we had before the internet gave everyone a voice?

This book didn’t present much hope of fighting the monster, short of burning down the standards it invokes, but the book’s very limitations got my mind buzzing about other approaches. Because when people recognize that a monster is out there and as prone to eat them as their enemies, things do start to happen and life gets interesting.

For instance, it made me wonder about internet insurance. How many organizations have long-standing contracts with internet reputation managers? Do their insurance policies cover this potential emergency expense? Are their employees also covered? Given the uncontrollable nature of twitter storms, will they come to be viewed the way actual storms are, and online reputation damage be ranked with having a tree fall on your car?

Will employees ever be in a position to demand clauses in their contract protecting them against discrimination based on twitter storms? Pile-ons, after all, provide an excuse for firing people; the Salaita case comes to mind. What are the ramifications for employment law? Will desirable employees begin to shun companies that fire on the basis of social media, as they now are presumed to shun companies that discriminate against GLBT employees? Will searching someone’s twitter feed become as unacceptable a part of job interviews as asking them about their sexual orientation?

So many questions, so many issues. Thirty seconds’ googling brought up a mess of NLRB guidelines and a whole new batch of legal blogs I’ll be following. But I would have liked to get at least some of this information from the book about it.

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The Martian is just the right mix

I loved The Martian by Andy Weir from the first page to the last.

The Martian is Competent Man fiction. This is the good kind of competent man fiction, too; the competent man takes his competence for granted. His moments of brilliance give him just the right amount of thrill to show us that they happen pretty regularly and his screw-ups are realistic and upset him just the right amount. There’s no undertone of  defensiveness in this competent man. When he tells us just how he’s doing something it’s because he wants to record how it works or because he’s thrilled/disgusted with the results, not because he wants us to be impressed with him.

Mixed into this base is just enough of all the other required ingredients for a feel-good SF adventure story. To wit:

Nerd humor
Rebellion against The Man(sometimes puerile)
Loyalty to comrades
Good people working together
Batshit crazy engineering decisions
Big bad weather
Abrasive but brilliant engineers

And then a lot of stuff that goes against the expected tropes:

The public cares, and aren’t presented as ignoramuses
The press do their jobs without becoming villains
Other countries help out
The PR people and administrators are on the right side
Folks in the government agency are helpful

In short, it’s a novel about the world we want to live in – at least, the world I want to live in. Everybody means well, everybody’s Competent and everybody’s honestly doing their best. Anyone who likes Nevil Shute will love it, because it’s the same universe. I’d go further and suggest that almost anybody will love it, period. Go forth and buy.

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Mutiny on campus

This weekend my socks are steamed by a bit of gossip I heard at work. It goes like this:

There’s one job where I work that most of us hate doing, but that needs to be done. The folks in my department are pretty good at bulling through this task maybe 90% of the time, which still leaves us getting the occasional reminder or threat about finishing the last 10%. But apparently there are some people, in some departments, who never do this job at all no matter how much of it has been assigned to them or how much we need it to be completed. And instead of nagging or threatening them – because neither of those has worked – the rumor is that TPTB are going to hire someone to do the job they let slide.

That’s right. The people who give 90% are dunned for the last 10%, as if we had given nothing at all; and the people who give 0% are rewarded. Seeing this, am I kicking myself for not having done 100% all along, or am I kicking myself for ever having done this task at all? You only need one guess.

This isn’t the first time such a thing has happened. Folks in my division are good little soldiers who plod along at unpleasant, poorly designed tasks while other departments mutiny. Usually the first thing we hear of the mutiny is when administration takes the task away from faculty because we can’t be trusted to do it, at which point we benefit without ever having mutinied – so the story’s more complicated than my initial presentation, isn’t it?

There are always at least three sides to a mutiny. The folks who mutiny against a rule, the folks who want them to follow the rule, and the folks who say ‘Isn’t there a better way to do it, anyway?’ In academia, as opposed to pirate novels, everything moves so slowly that the third group has time to chime in, and thus we progress. I, however, am never on any of these sides, and I honestly don’t know how to feel about that.

I do feel there’s a Royal Academy story in here somewhere, though. What counts as heinous busywork in the Demonology Department, and will demons be the enforcers or the mutineers? Hmm.

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April Fools’ repost from the Royal Academy – Why your diet didn’t work

I first posted this a few years ago, and despite thousands of scientist-hours nobody has come up with a better explanation for the obesity epidemic. Enjoy!

From the Royal Academy Archives

Ten years ago it was fashionable in some circles to assert that so-called ‘reality’ was merely consensus on the part of the people who supposedly defined it for us all – scientists.  Of course, anyone who has attended the Royal Academy knows this is utter nonsense.  Reality is defined by consensus among Alchemists, and scientists, just like the rest of us, must accept it as given.

Things weren’t always this way.  There was a time when Alchemists cared nothing for consensus, and you could hire them to create whatever local changes in reality you could afford.  Thus we had princesses who dropped pearls from their lips with every word or slept for a hundred years, princes turned into frogs and swans, and all such stuff.  More importantly, we had kings who were invincible in battle, heroes who ran faster than the swiftest horses, walls that came tumbling down, and so forth.  And we had people trying to kill one another’s court Alchemists.  Eventually, bad luck for the Alchemists came in the form of a peaceful period, under a single ruler who decided that he would best secure his throne by destroying any Alchemists who might be hired to oppose him.

Not being stupid, the Alchemists united to form the Mystic Guild of Alchemists, the bureaucracy to end all bureaucracies.  Not only did this organization negotiate with governments on behalf of all Alchemists and enforce the resulting agreements by executing dissenters, it moved with such glacial slowness to approve any changes in the world proposed by its members that most people forgot about Alchemists.  But Alchemists still exist among us, and their Guild, while it moves slowly, has a heavy tread.  When the Guild approves a change in the world, Alchemists all over the world accept it – the ultimate consensus – and you and I have to live with the results.

What does this have to do with your diet?  It’s no secret. All you have to do is look into the Mystic Guild of Alchemy Annals.

If you’re the sort of person who likes reading online patent applications, you’ll love the MGA Annals.  You’ll find all sorts of interesting things in there.  For instance, in the January 2006 issue you’ll find that enteric bacteria have become almost 25% more efficient at converting branched carbohydrates into simple, readily absorbable sugars.  Know what that means for you?  It means carrots are fattening now.  Your intestinal bacteria will convert them into something you can digest.

In July, 2002, the MGA approved a change in human mitochondrial structure.  Have you noticed that it takes you four hours’ worth of exercise to make up for one chocolate chip cookie?  You’re more efficient.

Remember when you could lose weight on that cabbage soup?  Cabbage is more digestible now (June 2005).  Remember when you switched to the grapefruit diet?  Hasn’t worked since April 1992.

What is the MGA trying to accomplish?  The MGA Annals present reasoning along with their conclusions.  And the reasoning that appears behind every one of these changes is the same; starvation.  Each of these changes that make us fatter in the developed world is projected to reduce starvation in the undeveloped world.  These are interventions on behalf of people who don’t get enough food, who need to get more energy from the food they do get, and who need to do more work with the calories they’ve taken in.

So the next time your diet unexpectedly stops working, or you gain five pounds by just looking at a cheesecake, you can blame an Alchemist.  You can think of your waistline as being held hostage by a sinister quasi-governmental organization that will never let you be thin until its agenda has been accomplished.  If you want to, you can even come over to the Royal Academy and throw a rock at the Alchemy Building, where our tireless researchers have been making people fatter since 1586.

No need to thank us.

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While I’m thinking of sex, here’s a repost about why Rho studies ducks.

mallard drakeSomeone asked me yesterday why Rho, the protagonist of Advice From Pigeons,  studies incubi in ducks.

Actually, Rho studies incubi in ducks because it is the hot topic in his field. Like a good PI, I steered my character toward a research area with career prospects.

Incubi being the demons of lust, they are intimately involved in livestock breeding; hence the discipline of veterinary lechery. Controlling them is a challenge, though. How do you make an incubus possess one individual animal? How do you make it stay in that animal, until he has bred with all the females? Incubi are flighty, and usually leave their host immediately after sex. Except in ducks.

Researchers have known for a long time that male ducks, particularly mallards, are highly sexed individuals. Male mallards engage in standard courtship, male-on-male activity, and what mundane scientists term ‘Forced Extra Pair Copulation:’ in Davis’ (2002) study, almost half of the male mallards were ‘forcers.’

Mundane scientists try to explain this kind of thing by hormone levels, social position, and natural selection. Veterinary lechers know that these drakes are in fact possessed by incubi.  But do the incubi remain in their hosts throughout the breeding season, or are mallards simply re-possessed immediately after each mating?  Rho’s observations in the field, filming possessed mallards with the camera lucida, settled this question. A significant number of mallard drakes are continuously possessed by individual incubi for entire breeding seasons.

Now Rho’s challenge is to build on this work, finding out why mallards can attract and retain incubi and how we can do the same.  Today’s little man filming ducks from up in a tree may be tomorrow’s viagra millionaire!

Literature cited: Davis, E. (2002). Male reproductive tactics in the mallard, Anas platyrhynchos : social and hormonal mechanisms. Behav Ecol Sociobiol (2002) 52:224–231.

For those of you who are true duck sex fanciers, here’s a link to the famous duck penis eversion video.

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Nature’s Nether Regions

This book is about the evolution of genitalia. In practice, that means it’s largely about penises – as Dr. Schilthuizen readily admits, the field has had a gender disparity problem. That hasn’t prevented scientists from identifying female choice as a major selective force, however, with many fascinating behavioral and anatomical specifics.

Here we find discussions of traumatic insemination and the sperm’s ability to swim around the abdominal cavity, seeking out eggs to fertilize – something which appears to occur in humans as well as more adventurous animals. We find apparatuses for sequestering sperm and controlling its access to the eggs, including sperm dumping. The male equivalent includes post-coital plugs, some created by the most drastic of measures, and ways to remove the previous male’s sperm from a mate and replace it with your own. An impressive variety of hydraulics are described, one kind best-known from sushi eaters’ unpleasant encounters with it. Of course reproduction is key, so I should not have been surprised by the tremendous amount of energy and materials animals devote to these structures. But I was.

The author clearly describes the evolutionary theories devised to explain this exuberant variety, outlining the competing arguments and their criticisms. For me, though, this was the least interesting aspect of the book. Not because any of the theories appeared to be particularly weak, but because I’ve done enough evolutionary biology in my time to know that had the data been exactly opposite, the scientists would just as readily have come up with theories to explain it and make it seem inevitable. For me, the far more convincing part of the book is in the few occasions when it delves into animal husbandry or human physiology and shows us verified predictions.

Reading about the sex lives of animals we’re not shy about underscores just how prudish and willfully ignorant we are about our own sex lives. Research findings we’re glad to apply to breeding pigs but ignore when it comes to humans, those hundreds of proteins in seminal fluid whose function we know nothing of even though we have a multimillion dollar industry devoted to treating infertility – what’s that about? You’d almost think humans aren’t really *trying* to maximize other humans’ reproductive potential…

That’s the way this book makes me think. I love a book that makes me think.

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First there was Bonsels’  Maya the Bee, which my folks gave me way, way back in the day. I must have been five or thereabouts. I did not notice any of its political subtext.

Then there was The Mother Hive by Rudyard Kipling, with the creepy wax-moth. Even as a child, I had a dim feeling that this was political; but I hadn’t any idea what it was political about. I did get the message that smooth-talking folks who promised to change things for the better while dropping their eggs all around the place were to be avoided; but absent historical context, this can be pointed at any part of the political spectrum.

Now The Bees by Laline Paull, quite different. What an ambiguous hive we’re introduced to, with its anonymous enforcers and sinister priestesses! If Kipling’s wax-worm had written a book about the hive, this is how she would have seen it. She would have championed the ‘defective’ bees that Paull’s enforcers kill.

Paull creates a much better built-up bee society than Kipling, though parts of it troubled me – mainly the division of the bees into familial castes. I found that hard to believe, as I found hard to believe the way the different families are assigned different roles and the protagonist switches between cleaning and other jobs at her own volition or the whim of other bees; I had thought all worker bees switched from job to job as they aged, cleaning at the beginning of their lives, so the intra-hive political jockeying struck me as gratuitous and a bit heavy handed.

Update! This bugged me so much that I’ve been delving into bee research and find that it does indeed appear to be true. The queen mates multiple times, providing genetic variability among the worker bees, and that genetic variability is correlated with behaviors like brood cleaning, mite removal, and fanning. I thought I could not be more impressed with Ms. Paull’s book, but I was wrong.

But most of the book was delightful. The drones, for instance; they are so perfectly drones, and the worker bees’ responses to them so pitch-perfect (“Your maleness!”). The way bees are described as part human and part insect works beautifully, especially when the larvae in the nursery are described as having sweet little faces. The landscape around the hive is well-realized, especially the chilling discovery in the rape-seed field, and the wasps are delightfully wicked.

His maleness

And Paull does much better than Kipling in explaining the bees’ loyalty to the hive, even with all its police-state aspects. The Queen’s presence is so strong you can completely buy into the worker bees’  love for her. The bees have a rich spiritual life, based heavily on smell but also on telepathic communication by antennae.  One of the strongest points of this book, for me, was the way Paull manages to evoke the bees’ groupthink – the term ‘hive mind’ is used without irony – without undercutting it. This is the most important thing in the world to the bees, the unifying force behind their civilization, and she treats that respectfully rather than using it to make a cheap political point (as, for instance, T.H. White did with the ants’ antennal communication in The Sword in the Stone).

This book reads like the final fruit of many happy hours poring over the lives of bees, and it gave me several happy hours and some new knowledge about both writing strategies and insects. I can’t ask for more.

And another update: This book gave my book club our best discussion in living memory. We were diving into it before all the members had arrived, and kept up vigorous, excited discussion all evening – aided by printouts of bee behavior articles, homemade honey, and photos of backyard hives.

Of all the fantasy novels I’ve read in the past few years, I enjoyed this one the most and it’s still giving me tremendous fun as I delve into bee genetics. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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