Friday, February 14, 2014

Why I Won't Wear Shorts in Public

This should probably start with a disclaimer, cos it'll probably sound pretty judgmental. In short: it isn't. I have some fairly unpopular aesthetic opinions (what some people might call "morals", but I don't like to use that word for them) which guide and inform the way I live my life. But I don't expect other people to live by my rules... I try to judge people by their rules, on their terms, not mine.

That said, from time to time I have something to say about those aesthetic opinions. Not because I'm trying to convert anyone, necessarily, but rather because I think someone might be interested in what I have to say about them. That's what's happening here.

I have strong feelings about this.

Have you watched a KFC ad lately? Well here's one.
Heh. Right?

Thing is I kinda have a problem with it. It gives me an icky feeling. It's because these grown-ass men are effectively being depicted as children. They're playing off that old "the only difference between men and boys is the size of their toys" thing, which is offensive and bullshit.

And this coming from someone who spends as much time playing with toy soldiers and spaceships as possible. Because my day job involves a proximity to and involvement with superficially childlike pursuits, I may have a hightened sensitivity to this sort of thing. But that doesn't mean there's nothing there.

It's a pervasive meme in our culture: that men are silly, childlike, untrustworthy and irresponsible. You've seen this kind of thing, right? It's everywhere, in the way people speak, the literature of our time, and especially in advertising.

That's fine. I don't really care about that. It's not as if men are alone in being the target of offensive stereotypes. Women know what I'm talking about here. Turnabout is fair play, right?

Sure. Whatevs. But I don't have to opt into it. I can choose not to brand myself with that stereotype, and I can decide how to present myself to others. If people want to brand me as a giant child, it's their mistake, not mine.

And that's why I refuse to wear shorts in public. Shorts are clothes for children... little boys in particular. Whether that's rational or not is beside the point, it's just the case. In the same way that frilly pink dresses are clothes for little girls. It needn't be that way, but it is.


When a grown man chooses to wear shorts out in public, by donning the attire of a small child, he's willingly opting into being cast as that child... he's self-infantalising.

That's fine, if you're into that sort of thing. If you buy into the man-child aesthetic, and like to be treated like a child for some reason. But I don't.
Not cool.

I also make no claims about how shorts look. Some women enjoy a short-panted man. That's cool. I happen to enjoy a short-skirted woman. But that doesn't mean it's necessarily desirable for a woman to walk around in a short skirt all the time. By doing so she's opting into a stereotype, which she may or may not wish to opt into. There's a time and a place, you know?

I also don't deny that shorts are sometimes practical. I happen to own several pairs of shorts that I wear around the house on hot days: working in the garden, that sort of thing. Shorts are also practical to wear on the beach, where the rules of propriety in attire are different to most other places.

But you'll never catch me wearing shorts to the movies or to work. That would be inappropriate, and would indicate my opting into a stereotype that I vehemently reject.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Adele Horn is a Dangerous Crazy Person

I usually don't like to write about people who are genuinely mentally ill. It feels like picking on a stray cat wrapped in a shopping bag: it's pathetic and doesn't suggest much about one's character.

It's one thing to pick on people who are more-or-less sane and promote crazy ideas. They can stick up for themselves. Or, in the case of Michael Tellinger, they can send their goon squad to argue with me on the comments of this blog. That's cool... it's really what I'm trying to do here.

But Adele Horn is mentally ill. I'm not a psychiatrist, but it's pretty damn obvious to me, and just about anyone who gets to know her well enough. I wouldn't hazard a diagnosis, I lack the qualifications. But I will go so far as to describe her condition as "fucking crazy".

Why pick on a poor, defenseless crazy person? I wouldn't. Adele may be crazy and poor, but she's not defenseless, nor am I picking on her.

You see, I made the mistake of hiring Adele to do some work for my business. The work was okay, I guess. She was helpful, especially at the beginning, but before long the contribution she was making scarcely justified the expense in keeping her on. Having to readjust my budget, I had to cut something, so I had to discontinue her contract.

Since then she's gone on an escalating crusade to try and destroy me and my girlfriend. Sounds like melodrama, right?

She's done all kinds of crazy things, ranging from poaching my customer database, to stealing my identity and racking up traffic fines in my name, to trying to get my girlfriend fired from her day job. Yes. That actually happened. All of those things.

She's even recruited a Neo-Nazi, paramilitary, crazy sidekick to help her (for srs... that's not a Godwin, it's a legit description of the dude). This is some Stephen King shit right here.

Being a more-or-less sane person, I won't stoop to the levels she does to try and retaliate or get even. I'll just sit here, as I have been for months now, watching the casualties from her craziness crusade roll in, and hope that eventually she'll get bored and move on. Sticking up for myself doesn't work, and only loses me friends.

If I were to attempt a proportional response right now, matching the level of crazy she's displaying, I'd pretty much have to set fire to her house or frame her for a child kidnapping or something. As tempting as it may be to do something like that, I'm just not that crazy.

What I'm doing with this post is stating openly, for the Internet, that Adele Horn is a dangerous crazy person. If you know her, or come across her in the future, best treat her as you would a bear in the woods: run the fuck away.

Hint: it's not showing you its teeth because it's smiling.

Don't make the mistake I, and several people close to me, have made and entangle yourself in her crazy. Leave Adele Horn alone.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

You Know What Would Be Great?

A little goddam support, that's what.

I know I haven't used this blog for personal gripes in years, but this one has a sceptical angle to it, so bear with me.

I'm in the midst of a row with a person who, only a few weeks ago, I considered a close personal friend, colleague and (kinda/sorta) employee. I had to make some tough decisions about our business relationship, and that led to some pretty lousy behaviour on their part.

Tempers were lost, memes were posted. I'm not particularly proud of one post I made early on, but generally I think I've conducted myself quite well through all of this. Keeping a cool head (despite wanting to lose it) and keeping all my comments and responses on the 'decent' side of the line.

The same cannot be said of my opponent in this debacle, who is going thermonuclear in spectacular fashion. I'm not surprised by their actions in all this (I've known this person to be something of a transuranian element as long as we've known each other), but what has surprised me is the actions of almost everyone else.

You may notice I've avoided any mentions of a name and all gender pronouns when referring to the person in question. If you really want to know who it is, it won't take you long to find out. If you know the person, you already know who it is. But for the sake of keeping this exercise an intellectual one, I feel the need to depersonalise this post. But for the sake of expediency, I will use a pseudonym: "Snowclaw".

Since I first lost my temper on Snowclaw's Facebook wall, they have undertaken a massive campaign to undermine and slander me, in a fashion I can only describe as "grandiose". I'm not the only target of this campaign... my girlfriend Soo and the business we own together are targeted as well. (the campaign actually started before the row did, and led to its commencement, upon which it changed form, but that's a long story)

Snowclaw's campaign appears to have consisted of the following strategy:

  1. Wait for Owen or Soo to say something. Anything, no matter how benign.
  2. Write an essay with poor spelling, grammar and punctuation (so it looks frenzied and hurriedly assembled) bleating about how whatever was said constitutes bullying, harassment or abuse (often all three), how dare anyone speak to them that way, they are completely innocent and sweet and nothing they've ever said or done deserves such a militant response... that sort of thing.
  3. Wait for Snowclaw's friends (most of whom have never met Owen & Soo) to join in on the thread, repeating Snowclaw's accusations while being generally hostile and behaving like a gang of naughty schoolboys kicking a dead cat.
  4. Contact Owen & Soo's friends, wailing about the mistreatment Snowclaw has received and try to convince them to turn against Owen & Soo. As additional ammunition, Snowclaw will refer to the consensus among Snowclaw's own friends that the claims are true.
  5. Repeat.
What you may notice immediately (I certainly did) is how closely this strategy resembles that of religious people from societies where religious privilege is common.

It's a well-worn strategy that seems to serve religious people well, even if it is ludicrous. Luckily the rationally-minded among us have seen it before, and know it when we see it, right?

That's what I would have thought. But the astonishing thing is that doesn't appear to be the case.

You see, step 4 in Snowclaw's strategy above actually works. I've lost a number of friends over the last few days. Some of whom were very close to me for years. The rate of attrition is alarmingly high.

Even more astonishing is every single one of those people is a rationalist! Every last one! Surely someone with a sceptical outlook would be accustomed to rejecting a superficial explanation of some extraordinary claim, pending the results of a more objective inquiry. Even if the claim is only mildly interesting.

And since an objective inquiry is quite easy in this case (all the relevant discussion threads are publicly visible*), I would expect that a 30 second survey of the facts at hand would allow any rational person the opportunity to dismiss the claims presented and accept a more accurate interpretation.

At the very least, if such a person found it difficult to arrive at a conclusive opinion based on that facts at hand, a logical next step would be to approach me (or Soo) to gain an insight into our side of the matter, and weigh that accordingly. Right?

I don't pretend that my interpretation of the situation is an impartial one. It's arrived at through my own set of biases. But surely my side should at least be considered before a conclusion is reached, should it not?

Guess how many of those friends have asked to hear my version. I'll tell you: none. 


I began this post with an emotional outburst which requires some explanation. Although many of Soo's and my friends appear to have accepted Snowclaw's version of events without question, some few have not. Those few have spoken to each of us in private messages, expressing their reassurance and wishing us luck. We're very glad in the knowledge that not all our friends have abandoned us.

But another puzzling thing is this: although Snowclaw's allies seem gleefully eager to express their support and agreement with Snowclaw, loudly and publicly, the same doesn't appear to be true of those who agree with us instead. Snowclaw has a veritable army of trolls, cheerleaders and other assorted flunkies egging them on, but we appear to have few or none of those.

I don't blame our friends for wanting to keep their heads down... drawing attention will also likely mean drawing fire from Snowclaw and their sniper-bullies. But it would be very gratifying to have a few people stand up for us in public. Very gratifying indeed.

It would also send a message to those who cast us aside that not everyone agrees with Snowclaw's assessment, there isn't a widely accepted consensus on the matter, and further investigation is warranted.

If you feel like you could offer us some of that kind of support, please do. It would be great.

* UPDATE: It seems the two threads in question may no longer be publicly visible. Snowclaw has blocked me, so I can no longer see them myself, and I won't resort to sockpuppets or meatpuppets to get around the block. Although it weakens my case that it's not possible for you to verify the facts for yourself, you might ask yourself what exactly Snowclaw has to hide if they are truly the victim in this situation.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

In Which I Am Surprised to Be Called a Rapist

This was originally going to be a very different post. I wanted to cover a number of different topics in one go, but it turns out I have a lot more to say about all this than I'd expected. As a result, I'm going to have to split it up into several posts, the first few laying the ground-work for the later ones.

You'll notice that in this post, I've backed down from my usual tone of 'blood-thirsty mercilessness'. As strongly as I feel about the subject matter, because the people I'm talking about here are allies of mine in the rationalist movement, I feel it prudent to afford them a certain degree of benefit of the doubt I wouldn't ordinarily offer. There won't be any cheap shots, name-calling or hair-pulling here. That's not cool.

Here's hoping I'm actually able to finish a series of posts this time! Fingers crossed!

Rebecca Watson
If you're at all involved in the atheist and sceptic online communities, you'll no doubt be aware of the schism currently underway that originated (more or less) with the "Elevatorgate" incident a year and a half or so ago.

If you're not, I'll try to bring you up to speed.

Noted sceptic and atheist speaker, Rebecca Watson, made a YouTube video in which she (among other things) expressed mild annoyance at having been propositioned by a guy while they were alone in a lift at four in the morning. She found it irritating and a little creepy, and implored all men everywhere to think twice before doing something like that.

Here's the actual video: (the relevant bit is at 4:30 if you want to skip ahead)

I didn't think anything of it at the time. And I still don't think much of it. It was a perfectly reasonable response to a situation that, for whatever reason, Rebecca didn't like. The shitstorm that followed on the blogs, YouTube, Twitter  and at sceptical and atheist conferences since then was, in my view, a ridiculous overreaction to an insignificant incident. Lines were drawn, polarizing labels abused ("feminazis" vs "rape apologists") and the whole thing got pretty messy.

I decided to stay the fuck out of it. I didn't agree with either side, and saw no benefit to sticking my nose in (beyond, perhaps, stimulating downloads for Consilience). But a few days ago I changed my mind about that.

I read this post by Rebecca. In it, she calls me a rapist. To be precise, she claims that if you have sex with someone who is drunk, you are automatically a rapist. "End of story."

How Does That Make Me a Rapist?

I'm a teetotaler. Always have been. But I don't have a policy of dating teetotalers. As it turns out, I've actually never dated one. In most of my sexual relationships I've been in situations where my partner was drunk and I wasn't. One of my longest-running relationships was with a woman who could probably have been considered an alcoholic - she was in some state of inebriation almost every time we were intimate.

We didn't part on the best of terms (it's safe to say she hates me more than any person alive) but if you were to ask her if I ever raped her, she'd say no. Even on some occasions when she was at her drunkest (I'm talking slurred-speech, unable-to-walk-unassisted drunk) the thought never occurred to anyone that our sex was anything but consensual. Everyone involved in the sex was an adult, capable of making his/her own decisions, and did so. Even at her drunkest, if she wasn't in the mood for it, she was perfectly capable of saying "no", and that would be the end of it. No means no.

Am I a rapist?  Of course not. It's absurd and, frankly, offends me that it would even be suggested.

Am I suggesting that alcohol can't be used as a tool by rapists to exert a measure of control over their victims? No. I can't speak to that. Not being a drinker myself I couldn't say how much it compromises one's decision-making ability. But I can categorically state that just because you have sex with a drunk person, that does not automatically make you a rapist.

So What's the Problem?

Rebecca's statement was wrong, and her apparently ideological commitment to that unwavering position of "drunk sex = rape, always" signifies a lack of rational thinking. Moral absolutes are the domain of the religious and other fundamentalists, not of rational, thinking people. I've always considered Rebecca to be a thinking person, not a dogmatist, hence my surprise.

It got me thinking about the whole schism in our movement, and particularly the position of the so-called "Feminist" camp in this fight. I use those quotation marks because I don't believe that their position represents Feminism in any real sense, but more of that later.

Suffice to say that I no longer wish to remain out of this fight, but I do want to be clear that I don't align myself with the rape-threatening trolls any more than I do with the Pseudo-feminists. I predict that my opposition to the Pseudo-feminists will draw (and already has drawn) accusations against me for being a sexist and rape-apologist (in addition to being a rapist, of course). That is the price for getting into this fight: putting up with trolls on both sides.

Shields up. Phasers locked. Ahead one half impulse.

"Sheilds... SHEILDS!!!!" - CAPT Hikaru Sulu

Keep your sensors peeled for the next installment. And check the comments below for the fireworks!

Friday, June 01, 2012

Transhumanism and Me

Transhumanism doesn't get that much air-play in sceptical circles these days. I suppose it's because the underlying premises haven't shifted much in recent years, and the groups on both sides are waiting to have their hypotheses falsified or supported by evidence.

I thought it might spark a bit of debate to air my own views on it, so here goes.

What Is Transhumanism?

It's complicated, but in a nutshell it's the belief that, as humans, we are, or should be, advancing towards a state where we can no longer be considered human.

It's hardly a new idea - Nietzsche coined the term "superman" to describe someone who was better than human. Eugenics was all the rage in the first half of the 20th century - the notion that we could improve our species through selective breeding. (it wasn't just the Nazis)

Transhumanism isn't so much about improving our species as a whole, as it is about improving ourselves as individuals. It's about overcoming the limits of our human bodies and giving ourselves abilities we would otherwise have lacked.

As you might expect, technology is pivotal to this. And I'm not just talking about cyborgs (although that's certainly part of it) - ordinary medical technology is very much involved.


The premise goes like this: through technology we have already enhanced ourselves to an enormous extent. A normal person today lives twice as long as those just a couple of generations back. That same person can see and hear things their ancestor didn't know existed, can have conversations with other people over vast distances, can access the sum of all human knowledge in seconds, are immune to diseases that once ravaged whole communities, can travel at speeds previously thought impossible, can fly as far as the moon and back. Compared to our great, great grandparents, we are already supermen (and superwomen).

Pictured: us

Given that we've already conquered so many of our limitations, says transhumanism, why should we assume that the rest of our limitations are insurmountable? Why accept any frailty, obstacle or defiency?

Why Indeed

I agree with transhumanism in this respect. I think it's reasonable, and even desirable, to overcome things like the need for sleep, the inability to subsist in a vacuum, reliance on chemical fuel and even death. Yup, death.

Transhumanists put forward a number of ways of overcoming the termination of the physical body. These range from the indefinite extension of the body's life-span through advanced medical technology (essentially making death itself a thing of the past) to downloading our memories and thoughts into new brains (thus making us redundant and duplicable).

Go on. You were thinking it.
I don't think any transhumanists are advocating living forever. I think we all agree that that would probably be pretty boring. Rather the intent is to introduce an element of choice into something that we previously couldn't choose: Instead of nature deciding when we live or die, we get to choose that for ourselves. A hundred years long enough? Cool. Prefer to live for five hundred? A thousand? A million? It's up to you.

I rather fancy the number 5000. That's my goal. That should give me enough time to get through my daily ToDo list and my list of goals on Schemer. More or less.

That's the point behind transhumanism, though. Not so much making everyone better, although that would be nice. It's more about giving people choices about their lives and the ways they choose to live them. Contraceptive pills have given women the option of having babies or not (some even allow women to choose whether they want to menstruate at all). Cosmetic surgery allows people to choose their own appearance. Stimulants and sedatives allow people to choose their own sleep/wake cycles (with varying degrees of success so far, but they're getting better). These and other choices are the ones advocated by transhumanists.

The Heroes of Transhumanism

There are a few notable figures of champion the transhumanist movement. Although I think they have worthwhile things to say, I'd guard against assuming that they speak for all of us. Everybody has some crazy ideas, and these guys are no exception. Names you're likely to come across include Ray Kurtzweil and Aubrey de Grey. Have a listen, but try not to take them too seriously.

Don't take Aubrey too seriously.

Of course there are all kinds of moral, ethical and practical considerations around the notion of transhumanism, all of which are worth discussing at length. I invite you to use the comments section below to get started on it.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Googling the Wikipedias

One of the podcasts I listen to every week is the Naked Scientist. In fact, I listen to a number of their podcasts, but the one  I'm referring to here is the one from local radio.

Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk have a weekly segment every Friday morning on Redi Tlhabi's show. Redi has a half-hour talk to Dr. Chris Smith, the original Naked Scientist during which listeners are invited to call in and ask science-related questions.

Chris is fantastic at it. His instant recall of an enormous variety of scientific facts and concepts is very impressive; And I particularly like the way he handles people who call in with questions about pseudoscientific topics. He's always gentle and sincere, and never condescending. He's really, really good at it.

What drives me up the wall, however, is how many of the questions are stupid.

They say there's no such thing as a stupid question. I disagree. If you're calling into a national radio show and making millions of people listen to you ask a question that you could have answered yourself with 30 seconds of googling, it's a stupid question.

I'd say that about 80% of the questions asked of the Naked Scientist fall into this category, ranging from people who don't know that the Earth orbits the sun to people who think Homeopathy is medicine. I'm assuming that these aren't performance art, like most of the submissions to Yahoo! Answers.

It's politically incorrect to scorn people for being ignorant. And I'm sympathetic to that position. I agree with the sentiment of this XKCD comic, which puts forward that it's more rewarding to tell someone something for the first time, than it is to make fun of them for not knowing it.

And I'm not trying to make fun of anyone here, really. I know full well that the education system failed many of us, particularly when it comes to science. My complaint here is more about the lack of self-sufficiency that seems to be prevalent, at least among the callers of the Naked Scientist.

Let me give you an example. One guy called in a week or two ago and asked Chris "Why is [some everyday occurrence] called a phenomenon?"

Chris was taken aback. The question was so stupid that he didn't understand it. After asking the caller to repeat it, he realised that the caller didn't understand what the word 'phenomenon' meant. Chris graciously told him what it meant, and swiftly moved onto a brief and elegant explanation of the everyday occurrence in question.

Now, this caller was a grown man. Obviously he wasn't educated, but he was at least clever enough to listen to a radio show called The Naked Scientist, to operate a phone, and to formulate a question. Did it not occur to this guy that maybe his understanding of the word 'phenomenon' was incorrect? Could he not have spent 30 seconds looking up the definition of the word in a dictionary or on Google before calling the radio station and wasting all our time?

It occurs to me that I come across this kind of attitude all the time. People I deal with daily (and I probably do this myself) would rather ask someone else for an answer than try to find it themselves. The number of questions I've been asked about obvious and easy-to-find things has driven me, on more than one occasion, to respond with a link to Let Me Google That For You.

I applaud Chris and the rest of the Naked Scientist team for their patience in dealing with callers of this calibre. And if you're thinking of calling the Naked Scientist, do us all a favour: check Wikipedia first.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Force As Medicine

Today I shall heap scorn upon Reiki, because it deserves it.

What Is Reiki?

It's an "alternative therapy" modality that involves waving your hands at someone to cure what ails them. Seriously.

But without the dramatic poses

Of course that's not what the Reiki practitioners will claim, They say things like how they're "manipulating the human energy field (aka "ki") and restoring healthfulness and creating wellbeing.". You know what that statement means? Approximately nothing.

And that's what Reiki is: nothing.

Surely There's More To It Than That?

Nope. Not really.

In order to become a Reiki practitioner, you have to go through a course, lasting several weeks. You learn all about reading auras, chakras, healing symbols and all sorts of things like that. And you know how useful any of that stuff is? Zero.

Okay, let's look at it a little more closely. There are a number of basic premises that the practice of Reiki are based on. I'll unpack them a bit:

  1. The human body has an energy field
  2. Illness is caused by disturbances in that energy field
  3. Adepts can manipulate the energy fields of others in order to correct those disturbances, and therefore treat and cure illness.
Premises 2 and 3 are based on premise 1. Luckily for us, premise 1 is a factual statement, and is therefore testable.

The Human Energy Field

People who make this claim generally don't understand what energy is. Which is inexcusable, because it's in early high-school physics text books. Everyone should know it.

Energy is the measurable work potential of an object. It's a measurement of how much a given object can affect the motion of the objects around it. Energy is stored in various forms: chemical (as in food or a battery), potential (as in putting an object in a high place, or setting a fly-wheel spinning) and so on. It can be transmitted to other objects through direct contact or radiation.

Energy is also locked up in mass. Matter is an organised form of energy, and through the right processes, you can destroy matter, thereby releasing the energy it holds. This happens in small measures through ionisation or nuclear fission and fusion, or in more efficient ways through matter/antimatter annihilation.

Pictured: fiction
Energy is not a glowy, sparkly cloud that hovers around things. You've probably gotten that impression from Star Trek, and that's an unfortunate result of lazy writing - it's not a reflection of reality.

So what is an energy field? It's not really a thing. You could describe a magnetic field as an energy field - it's an area where electrons flow around a magnet. Or you could describe the area into which an object releases electromagnetic radiation as an energy field. That's pretty tenuous though, and nobody would take you seriously if you claimed that Neither of those are very good descriptions, and it's certainly not a scientific nomenclature.

The real question is whether or not the human body has anything that can be described as an energy field, and the answer is kind of. The human body uses electricity for internal communication. When electricity flows, it creates an electromagnetic field, the strength of which is proportional to the voltage and or ampage of the current. Human electrical signals aren't very strong, so the EM field we generate isn't either. It may as well not be there.

You can test that yourself: hold a compass in your hand. If the compass points to magnetic North instead of to you, the Earth's (pretty weak) magnetic field is stronger than yours.

This clearly isn't the big, glowy energy field that the Reiki people are talking about. There simply isn't anything in or around the human body meeting that description.

Without an energy field to speak of, the second and third premises of Reiki fall down. There's no there there. But what about epidemiological data? Even if they have the mechanism wrong, are they still doing anything?

Epidemiological Evidence

There's plenty of evidence showing that Reiki fails to perform in double blind trials - indicating that it's not doing anything. Probably my favourite example is one that was performed on a related modaility: Therapeutic Touch.

Therapeutic Touch is basically exactly the same as Reiki, only with a more Western sciencey sound to it. And it was debunked by a 11-year-old girl.

Emily Rosa, a small child from Colorado, devised a test that would show whether or not Therapeutic Touch (and, by implication, Reiki) has anything to it. TT failed the test. It has no effect. 

Smart kid

So Where Does That Leave Us?

Reiki has no mechanism, no effect, and no point. People who practice it probably do so because they want to help people, which is a noble intent. But the most they're doing with Reiki is delivering a placebo. Their time and efforts would be better spent learning an actual skill. Waving your hands at people is only a skill for musical conductors, traffic pointsmen and Jedi Knights.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Ima say it: Geek Pride Day Should Go

Yesterday, the 25th of May, was international Geek Pride Day. I didn't want to post this on the 25th and spoil everyone's fun, but it's something that probably needs to be said.

At the risk of sounding like a hipster crying "I was a geek before it was cool", that's kind of how it is. Geeks are cool now. I know, right? When did that happen?

It happened a couple of years ago. I can't point to a specific time or event, but it happened around the time when Facebook started to catch on with non-geeks, and Apple launched the iPhone. Suddenly these things that were previously the domain of geeks, were popular and desirable amongst people in general (as some geeks call them, "muggles").

Not only are muggles (I hate that word, by the way, but it fits) suddenly infiltrating the formerly geek-only tech domain, but they also seem quite comfortable with the idea that they need geeks to make all that stuff go. Geeks are now respected.

Not everyone has heard the news, I'll grant you. There are still a few troglodytes around who snigger at the geeks in the IT department. But they're catching on. The first time they need helping installing WhatsApp on their BlackBerry, they tend to learn a little humility.

This has led to two things happening:

1. The Geeks have Won

Look around. This is it. This is what victory looks like. I know we're probably all still reeling from traumatic high-school careers, but that was before. This is after. While we were wrestling with our Ghosts of Wedgies Past, the world changed, and we're the ones in charge now.

New World Order
The richest men in the world are geeks. The biggest companies in the world sell the products we buy and love. "Geek chic" is a real thing. Comic book superhero movies are ruling the box office with an Iron gauntlet fist. The world's economies, governments and even militaries are utterly dependent on the technologies we invent, design, maintain and sell.

This is the age of the geek. It's time we stopped trying to convince everyone that we're cool, and started to see that the rest of the world already knows that we are.

And they're pretty intimidated by us, too. Every time the newspapers freak out over the privacy concerns of Facebook's new redesign or Google's new product, it's not really privacy they're worried about. They're scared that the geeks, who in their minds are indistiguishable from ninja-wizards, will use their mysterious sourcery to affect their lives in some nefarious way.

Want an example? Watch The Social Network - look at how Mark Zuckerberg is portrayed. He's an arrogant, selfish, power-hungry asshole with a super-villain-esque glint in his eye. That movie wasn't made by geeks - it's a muggle's-eye-view of what they fear about us: that we are secretly ambitious, capricious god-men, powered by science-magic and bent on world domination. Whether or not it depicts The Zuck accurately is really beside the point; It's not about him, it's about us.

Mark Zuckerberg: Ninja wizard

I certainly think there's room to celebrate the things we enjoy about "geek culture", but I think the "pride" part of the name is an anachronism. Pride of being the best may be rational, but throwing it in everyone else's face is uncool. It's what we used to hate about jocks. Do we really want to be that guy?

There's another problem though, and that brings me to my second point.

2. The Word "Geek" Is Now Meaningless

Now that geeks are cool, everyone wants to be one. As you might expect, people seem to think that if they can somehow find a way to apply the label "geek" to themselves, they get to usurp some of our awesomeness. And they're right... at least they have been.

Originally, "geek" (in this context - I'm not talking about the archaic definition) was used to describe a nerd, a dweeb or a dork. The terms were interchangeable. It was a person who was interested in technology, science-fiction, was socially awkward and unattractive. But about a decade or so ago that started to change.

Geeks, dorks, dweebs and nerds started drawing lines in the sand, and distinctions were made between the four. Here's probably the best depiction of it I've seen:

I think that's a good way of defining it. if only it had stayed there.

While the definitions of "nerd", "dweeb" and "dork" have remained somewhat static, "geek" (being the most glamourous of the four) has drifted. After a while, the obsessiveness component of it became the dominant one, and before we knew it, anyone with a passionate interest in something could call themselves a geek.

That meant that musicians, sportspeople (and their fans), wine enthusiasts and just about anyone with a hobby was now a geek of some description. And as Facebook (and it's entangled services) started filling the time of those who lacked a specific hobby, those people, too, started calling themselves geeks. In other words, the subset of the the world population now potentially identifiable as geeks was approaching 100%.

Pictured: just about everybody

So if everyone is a geek, what's there to be proud of? We're no longer a group apart. If we ever were an elite class (a matter for debate), we certainly aren't that anymore. Geeks are everybody, and everybody is a geek.

Geek Day

I'm all for celebrating the history of geekdom, and the ascendency of the geek lifestyle and culture. Let's have a Geek Day to remember our past struggles and our present triumph. To remind ourselves that today's downtrodden could be tomorrow's leaders. Let's celebrate society's progress.

But geek pride is an outdated notion, and I won't be celebrating that anymore. In fact, I'm probably going to stop self-applying the geek label, as it's now basically synonymous with "human".

Friday, May 25, 2012

What Is This I Don't Even

I've been staring with morbid fascination at the whole Spear debacle. I don't really care that much about it, but it's been pretty hard to avoid, so I've kept more or less up to date. I don't know how to parse any of it, so I figured I'd just share a few thoughts.

Firstly, it seems to me to have been just one stupid thing after another. Probably the most baffling thing to me in all of this is why anybody cares... it seems to just be a few obsessed people spinning their wheels in futility.

As I said, I haven't been paying very close attention, so I may well have some details wrong. And I don't care enough to do extensive reading about it. But this is how I understand things:

The Painting

So this artist, Brett Murray, painted our crooked President, Jacob Zuma, with his bi'ness hanging out. I'm assuming Zuma didn't sit for the painting himself, so Murray presumably painted an imaginary Little President on there.

My response to this: "Heh."

It's some pretty low-brow social commentary. It's not without it's place, but I don't think it's all that interesting. As my sister says, it's "cartoonism". Mildly entertaining, but not even worthy of a "lol".

The Suit

The painting made its way to an exhibition at the Goodman Gallery for some reason. I guess there's no accounting for taste. This made the messiah President Zuma lose his goddam mind. So he sued the gallery to have the painting banned.

My response to this: "Um, what?"

Zuma is so offended that someone painted (not photographed, mind you... painted) him with someone else's twig & berries on him, that he wants to have it banned. Banned. Regardless of the legalities of this notion, it's just plain stupid. My first thought was that obviously the boerewors in the painting is way bigger than Zuma's own, and it's embarrassed him in front of all his wives. (Yes, international reader, that's plural. Our president is a proud polygamist).

This bit is probably the most significant part, in my mind. If someone can sue someone else for displaying a cartoon of them, that says some pretty bad things for freedom of speech. Political cartoons are an important manifestation of public commentary - even when they're dumb.

I'll grant that it's potentially defamatory, but should it be banned? Absolutely not.

And besides, in the age of the Internet, what's the first thing that happens when you try to censor something? Everybody makes a copy of it and posts it on their own website (as I have done). It's called The Streisand Effect.

The Public Outcry

A lot of people, apparently, think that Zuma is legitimately upset about all this, and they demonstrated and performed and vandalised the gallery and so on.

My response to this: "Meh."

Plenty of people will get up in arms about anything. Don't care.

The Vandalism

Two guys, within seconds of each other, and in front of press and public, defaced the painting by smearing paint all over it. They were arrested on the spot, but they'd already ruined it.

My response to this: "Lol, wut?"

I still don't get it. Last I heard their names have been made public, but it's still not clear why they did it. The youngest of the two men was quoted on the scene as saying "It's an insult.", but who knows what he meant by that. The older of the two is apparently an art professor.

One leading hypothesis: it's performance art. The two vandals collaborated to make some sort of public statement.

I have no idea how true that is, and I still don't really care. Having seen the footage, though, it's kind of surprising just how calm, confident and deliberate they were in doing it.

The Breakdown

During the court proceedings yesterday (whether it was Zuma's censorship suit or the trial for the vandals I'm not clear on, and don't care enough to check) Zuma's lawyer broke down in tears in court. And then the judge forbade the TV networks of broadcasting the footage of it (although the BBC aren't bound by that ruling)

My response to this: *facepalm*

Here we have the Streisand Effect again.

This whole thing is just flippen crazy. None of it makes any sense, and, as far as I can see, it's all just stupid! A mediocre screenwriter couldn't put this story together, because it's just so inane!

But I guess there's nothing else interesting happening this week. Like the SKA decision or the Dragon module docking with the ISS.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

South African Crank of the Week: Tracey-Lee Dorney

Listeners of the Consilience podcast will know that I have a somewhat unhealthy obsession with people claiming that cellphones cause cancer, or whatever similar claim. That and bees. And especially when people say that cellphones give bees cancer.

As far as I know, this week's Crank hasn't claimed that cellphones kill bees, but you never know when she might start. It's certainly the sort of thing she might say. This week I present to you Tracey-Lee Dorney!

"It killed my tree ded!"
Tracey Who?

Dorney has appeared in the news several times over the last few years in which she actively and aggressively promotes the claim that cellphones (and related technologies) are killing you, and making your family (and even your trees) sick.

She is the spokesperson (and apparently the only member) of the Electromagnetic Radiation Research Foundation of SA. And she has a website full of all kinds of stories about how cellphones, cellular towers, WiFi, and just about any wireless data connectivity is bad for you. It's complete with upsetting images of babies being irradiated and lists of scary symptoms.


Two notable stories where she was involved was in trying to get an iBurst tower taken down in Fourways (she succeeded, even though the people complaining about symptoms had no idea that the tower had been switched off for months). She also claimed that MTN's LTE pilot was scorching the trees in her garden.

Why Is She a Crank?

Because she's promoting nonsense. Unlike Danie Krugel, who I wrote about last week, I don't think Dorney is a deliberate fraud. I think she sincerely believes the stuff she says. And it's understandable... cellphones are complicated, and if you lack a certain level of scientific literacy, it's easy to mistake any scary-sounding claim as science. That seems to be what Dorney does.

The "research" part of her website's name seems to refer mainly to her doing research on the Internet - looking for anything she can find that lends support to her a priori conclusion. She also had a tangential involvement in a "study" that was misguidedly conducted by a couple of high school kids, that proved exactly nothing.

But let's look more closely at her specific claims. It's tricky, because there are a lot of them. But the basic idea seems to be that cellphones and similar technologies make you sick. The idea isn't crazy on the surface... I mean, it's radiation, right? Problem is, real science is usually more complicated than scary words.

Real science - no scary words

But it's not so complicated that we can't understand it. See? Pretty colours!

The elecromagnetic spectrum includes all kinds of radiation made up of photons. That includes light, radio, infrared, ultraviolet, X-Rays, gamma rays and microwaves. There's nothing qualitatively different about these different forms of radiation - they're all basically the same thing, just at different energy levels. Once a given beam of radiation has an energy level of a certain value, we call it "infrared" instead of "microwave". That's it.

But, on the higher end of the spectrum, the waves have so much energy that they can actually cause an atom to shed one of its electrons - thereby turning it into an ion. This is called ionising radiation, and it includes the parts of the EM spectrum from the upper ultraviolet, through X-Rays up to gamma rays. Ionising radiation can be bad, because it can damage your DNA, leading to coding errors which can potentially lead to cancer.

Not that kind of X-rays
So, as a rule you want to minimise your exposure to ionising radiation. A little bit every now and then is probably fine, but the less the better.

Non-ionising radiation doesn't hurt you like that. Too much infrared or visible light can dump energy into a surface. If that surface is your skin, it could potentially burn you. But again you'd need quite a lot of it to get that effect - like a high-powered laser or sunlight focussed through a lens.

Microwave ovens use, as the name suggests, microwaves. But it's a little more complicated than you might expect. The oven doesn't just bathe its contents with microwaves and heat your food that way. Instead it emits a high level of microwave radiation, but it switches the orientation of the field back and forth at high speed. This causes the water molecules in your food, which are slightly magnetic, to vibrate back and forth. That vibration is what causes the heating. It's also what causes metallic objects to spark in there - they build up a hell of a charge from the alternating field. Even though microwaves emit quite a lot of radiation, you'd have to be inside the oven, with your molecules vibrating, to have any ill effects from it.

How does that relate to cellphones? Well they also use microwave radiation. Microwaves are just higher-energy radio waves, and they're suitable for high-bandwidth data transmission within the Earth's atmosphere. Cellphones, and most similar technologies, use signals encoded in microwaves (like morse code in a beam of light) to talk to each other. They don't alternate their fields like microwave ovens do, and they use orders of magnitude less energy than ovens (your cellphone uses about 2 Watts,compared to your oven's 500 Watts).

In other words, if we're talking about electromagnetic exposure, a few minutes in the sun will expose you to way more radiation (including some ionising radiation) than talking for hours on your cellphone.

The whole premise is flawed.

But we don't need to understand the premise if there's epidemiological data to support an effect. If people are getting sick from cellphones, then something must be causing it, even if we don't know what. So are people getting sick from cellphones?

No. Study after study after study shows no link between cellphone use and mortality or cancer. Although cellphones have only been popular for 15 years or so, and long-term data is still coming in, so far there's no reason to conclude that cellphones cause any harm whatsoever. There's no effect. None.

So Dorney's well-intentioned crusade is fundamentally wrong. She's promoting bad science, but for a good reason. Although I tip my hat to her intent, her passion would be better served if she weren't blinded by her own inability to understand what science shows us about the world. A good person she may be, but as long as she scares people with nonsense, she remains a crank.

Have someone you'd like to nominate as a Crank of the Week? Head over to Google Moderator, submit your suggestions and vote for your favourite.