Notes and Comment Blog

The big city

Apr 2nd, 2013 11:55 am | By

Wow, I’m amazed. I read some bit of promotional/informational bumf about Austin that was part of the hotel room furniture, and goggled at the bit that said Austin is #14 among US cities in population. What?! thought I. That can’t be right. There are too many other bigger cities in the way – Seattle being one.

But you know what? I’m wrong. I have a vague memory of Seattle being at about 17 or 19, but now I think about it that was probably decades ago. Anyway sure enough, as of 2010 (the last census) Austin is at 14; Seattle is at 23.

That still feels surprising. Austin’s downtown is weirdly diffuse, vertical only in spots. It has these shiny new condo towers but they’re all isolated. I went past all the super-tall ones west of Congress Avenue yesterday and they are bizarre – they sprout up in a nowhere-land, as if built after a bombing raid. No shops and fellow condos next door, but empty lots and the back of the power station.

And the airport is tiny. Ok, so I managed to figure that out…Seattle is in a very urbanized county, and maybe Austin isn’t, or maybe SeaTac is a hub and Austin isn’t, or maybe both. Anyway – thus we learn that my talent for seat of the pants demographics-estimation is nil.

I was surprised by a lot of the cities in the top 20. San Antonio! Jacksonville! Indianapolis!! (Indianapolis?! Seriously? How did that happen? Not St Louis or Minneapolis or Cleveland, but Indianapolis. Dang. I had no idea.)

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Why the American Secular Census didn’t sign

Apr 2nd, 2013 11:29 am | By

Also there’s this:

Why the American Secular Census didn’t sign ‘An Open Letter to the Secular Community’

More later, but see what you think in the meantime. (Dang everything was busy while I was busy-elsewhere. How can I catch up if people won’t suspend activity while I’m otherwise engaged?! I ask you.)



(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Press release

Apr 2nd, 2013 10:21 am | By

I’m back!

More later.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Godlessness and the Boy Scouts

Apr 1st, 2013 4:37 am | By

One of the talks at the convention was Katherine Stewart’s about the Good News club and what it means; another was Margaret Downey’s about the Boy Scouts of America’s rejection of atheism and atheists. Katherine Stewart had a piece on the latter subject in the Guardian about ten days ago.

The BSA sent out a questionnaire recently to assess attitudes to its anti-gay policies.

There is a certain irony, of course, in using a questionnaire to establish individual rights. After all, the point of rights is to protect individuals and minorities against the tyranny of a majority. The irony is compounded by the fact that the Boy Scouts claims to be an organization dedicated to moral principles.

A similar irony is at work in the atheist (or skeptical) movement right now, in which one faction insists that treating women as equals is an “imposition” of a political ideology on unwilling victims. Yeah no. It’s not as if equal rights or equality or egalitarianism is an ideology while its opposite isn’t. I don’t want the ideology of not treating women as equals, either, so stalemate, so let’s choose the better option.

the questionnaire, like much of the coverage surrounding it, is silent about the role of religion in shaping the Boy Scout’s discriminatory policies in another area, one that is distinct from and yet intimately connected with its bigotry toward gay people.

Adult leaders in the Boy Scouts must sign a Declaration of Religious Principles, and Scouts must take an oath “to do my duty to God”. Both adults and children can and have been excluded from the organization for lack of belief in a supreme being (or beings). Neil Polzin, who had been in the Scouts for nearly two decades, says he was fired in 2009 from his job as an aquatics director at a Boy Scout camp and told to “sever any ties” with the organization after his superiors found out about his non-belief.

Even the irreligion of parents can be a basis for excluding children from the group. In 1991, 12-year-old scout Matthew Schottmiller was not allowed to renew his membership after it was learned that he was raised in a non-theist household. His mother, Margaret Downey – who was rearing her son to be a freethinker – filed suit. But the supreme court ruled in 2000 that, as a private organization, the Boy Scouts is free to decide their own membership criteria.

The supreme court is right – at least, in some sense. In the US, private groups can and should be allowed to control their membership without legal interference. On the other hand, private groups aren’t necessarily entitled to a congressional charter, regular support from government agencies, and endorsement from government officials – all of which the Boy Scouts do enjoy.

Also lots of respect and status and deference, all of which are open to debate given their warm embrace of religious and anti-gay bigotry.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Bat flight

Mar 31st, 2013 7:04 pm | By

I saw them! I saw the bats – the Congress Avenue Bridge bats. It’s the biggest urban bat roost in the country. Their twilight emergence is indeed spectacular. Smelly, but spectacular.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

In the coffee area

Mar 31st, 2013 6:41 am | By

I just had a chat with the guy who came up with the idea of de-baptism.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Why the ____ community hates feminists

Mar 31st, 2013 5:24 am | By

The panel yesterday was fun, and it got a friendly reception. There are a lot of women here, on the stage and attending in general, with the expected result that it doesn’t feel like a frat house. There is at least one “get out of my clubhouse” type here though, and I cleverly managed to sit next to him at dinner last night. That was unpleasant.

Alice Marwick in Wired says that it’s a growing thing, which is sad to hear.

Rather than attempting to discern whether Richards was in the right or the wrong, I’ve been thinking about why the issue blew up and what it reveals. Because it’s far from the first time this kind of thing has happened. The Richards incident and resulting backlash not only reveals the lack of diversity and presence of misogyny in tech culture, but the myth of meritocracy and the growing belief in “misandry” online.

Regardless of the nuances of the incident, the fact remains that Richards faced a gargantuan backlash that included death threats, rape threats, a flood of racist and sexually violent speech, a DDOS attack on her employer — and a photoshopped picture of a naked, bound, decapitated woman. The use of mob justice to punish women who advocate feminist ideals is nothing new, but why does this happen so regularly when women criticize the tech industry? Just stating that the tech industry has a sexism problem — something that’s supported by reams of scholarly evidence — riles up the trolls.

One reason for this is the growing popularity of “Men’s Rights Activism” (MRA) — groups of men who refer to feminism as “misandry” and advocate vociferously that men face more discrimination than women. Its popularity is growing and is especially active online on sites such as Hacker News and Reddit, where much of the public controversy around Donglegate has played out in the comments. Even sites like GitHub, where the PyCon conference code of conduct was posted, are not immune.

Nothing is immune. But…here we still are. And we have better allies.

Marwick argues that the myth of meritocracy is central to the problem.

Yet the myth of equality persists, since the technology industry considers itself a meritocracy where the “good” ones — for example, talented engineers and programmers — will rise to the top regardless of nationality, background, race, or gender. When considering the dismal numbers of women (as well as African-American and Latino men) in tech, the meritocratic presumption is that these minorities aren’t good at or interested in technology; otherwise, there would be more of them.

If we admit there are structural barriers to entry, and a culture that actively discourages and women and men of color from participating, then it logically follows that technology is not a meritocracy. And this threatens many dearly held beliefs of technology workers: It suggests those at the top aren’t there because they’re the best, but because of hard work and privilege. It suggests that the enormous wealth generated by tech startups and founders isn’t justified by their superior intelligence. It requires change from a culture in which male normativity is, well, the norm — to a more inclusive one where penis jokes and booth babes are no longer acceptable (and the mere suggestion to discard them isn’t met with a hailstorm of protest).

In short, it requires geeks to re-examine their own revenge fantasies of being outsiders who now rule the world and admit that they might, themselves, be actively excluding others.

Their reward for doing so? More and better allies, friends, comrades.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Quel matin

Mar 30th, 2013 10:49 am | By

Katherine Stewart gave an amazing (and terrifying) talk this morning about the good news clubs and how they take over everything and trick small children into thinking they’re part of School.

I don’t have time to find it on this tragically slow notebook right now but I remember doing a long post on Stewart’s very long article on this subject when it came out a few years ago. If anybody would like to find it and post the link for us, that would be helpful. On the old B&W I think.

Hector Avalos did an amazing talk on religion and violence. Matt Dillahunty ditto on skepticism and atheism. Abby Hafer ditto on intelligent design and why it isn’t.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)


Mar 30th, 2013 10:38 am | By

Brilliant – the #AAcon13 hashtag is being invaded by harassers. A lot. Good thinking! Way to demonstrate to a whole bunch of new people just what we’ve been talking about! Way to get a big chunk of “the broader community” to think of you and your project to demonize us as a bunch of assholes with an asshole project.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)


Mar 29th, 2013 4:01 pm | By

Dave is pissed. A judge ruled in the World Trade Center cross case today – Dave was brandishing the actual ruling, with a big red blob visible on it (I’m assuming a seal). The judge dismissed it – the cross is just “secular.”

That’s such a crock of shit, just as it is with the ten commandments slab here at the state house – it’s highly conspicuous, there’s nothing secular apparent, and at the top it naturally begins with god god god god god. Worship god, have no other god, blah blah blah.  Secular?

This is why we need American Atheists.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Morning session

Mar 29th, 2013 9:36 am | By

I went to sleep very late last night and woke up very early so I was perilously close to falling asleep but then Anthony Grayling came in and sat next to me and Dave did his talk so I WOKE RIGHT UP.

It was a great talk. Dave’s a rouser, and a rouser is what we need, which is what he said. American Atheists is doing people like the Harvard Humanists a favor because now there are the bad atheists over here and the good atheists over here and what does that mean?

That there are good atheists!

You should say it in a shout, the way Dave does.

I was telling Anthony how Dave can stand up to O’Reilly, which hardly anybody is good at doing.

Near the end Dave said and also we need to work together, we need unity, so if you’re someone who is taking potshots at other atheists just because it’s fun, cut it out.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

U mad bro?

Mar 29th, 2013 7:43 am | By

Aha. My response to Shermer’s response to me is now online.

At Free Inquiry

Outraged shouting and tweets and photoshops in 5, 4, 3….

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

And another thing

Mar 29th, 2013 7:36 am | By


My god the bird life here. I don’t know what the birds are – they’re not the birds you see in Seattle, so I don’t know. There’s a ubiquitous one that’s black with a long tail and a very loud voice. After I crossed the Congress Avenue bridge and Cesar Chavez Street I approached a cluster of oak trees on the corner and my god the din – it was an absolutely deafening racket of those black birds, whatever they are, shouting. You never hear bird noise like that in Seattle – let alone in downtown Seattle! It was very impressive and foreign and cool.

In the Capitol grounds there were a lot of mourning doves making that call. Also very nice.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

What I saw

Mar 29th, 2013 7:25 am | By

1. On the Capitol grounds (which are very nice, very broad and seweeping and parklike) a memorial thing to brave…Confederate soldiers. Signed by Jefferson Davis.

Oh right. This is the Confederacy.

2. Also on the Capitol grounds, on the north side, a big granite slab with…the ten commandments.

Oh Dave, I thought. Actually I said, because there was no one around; it was very early. Oh Dave; got one for ya.

3. On Congress Avenue, a statue of a ragey woman firing a cannon.

She made me giggle.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)


Mar 29th, 2013 3:18 am | By

No seriously. I’m in Texas. It feels like being in a foreign country. The trees are different. The birds are different – very different.

I got here in time for the auction dinner. I sat between Richard, from San Francisco, and Glen, from Philadelphia, who had donated one of the items to be auctioned – and what an item it was: a week at a retreat he designed and built in Costa Rica. Whooo…It was a fund raiser for American Atheists. Funding buys their work, Dave told us, like that case they won at the Supreme Court this year.

And Anthony Grayling was there! It’s lovely to see him again.

Now I have to go out and see a little of Austin. I didn’t get much sleep but that’s good because it gives me time to see a little of Austin.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)


Mar 28th, 2013 8:06 pm | By

In Austin. Among the atheists. Dinner. Auction. Amanda, Dave, Matt, Ingrid, Greta, Anthony. Didn’t see the bats though.

Love Austin.

More later.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

The struggle

Mar 28th, 2013 6:59 am | By

There will be a book in which Malala tells her own story published in the fall.

The memoir of 15-year-old Pakistani student Malala Yousafzai will be published this fall, publisher Weidenfeld & Nicolson announced Wednesday. The deal is reportedly worth about $3 million.

Titled “I Am Malala,” the book will tell the story of the young advocate for women’s education who was shot in the face at point-blank range by Taliban gunmen on Oct. 9 in Pakistan’s Swat Valley.

I’m assuming she has a co-author or ghost writer or some such, because that’s a very short time for publishing and she’s in school and has only just recovered from being shot in the head and is only 15 anyway. “Memoir” seems like the wrong word for that – but I don’t know, maybe it’s not. Anyway it doesn’t matter; it’s good that there will be such a book.

“I hope the book will reach people around the world, so they realize how  difficult it is for some children to get access to education,” Malala said in a news release. “I want  to tell my story, but it will also be the story of 61 million children  who can’t get education. I want it to be part of the campaign to give  every boy and girl the right to go to school. It is their basic right.”

That’s why it’s good that there will be such a book.

“This book will be a document to bravery, courage and vision,” Arzu  Tahsin, deputy publishing director at Weidenfeld & Nicolson, said in a statement.  “Malala is so young to have experienced so much and I have no doubt  that her story will be an inspiration to readers from all generations who believe in  the right to education and the freedom to pursue it.”

That’s why.

It’s a struggle, promoting education for girls in places that are both impoverished and ferociously traditional.

An Afghan father of two young daughters, Saidal Pazhwak, works with Kissell’s group in Kabul. “I believe that education is a girl’s right,” he says, adding    that many parents want to educate their daughters but lack either a safe environment or nearby schools to do so.

His mission, he says, is to train more teachers, especially female teachers. He says his group has helped train around 10,000 women teachers in Kabul in    the past two years, with funding from the World Bank. He wants to see more women in government positions in remote areas as well, serving as role models.

There is a considerable way to go, says Sabatina James, a Pakistani-born activist who defied a forced marriage as a teen. When she refused to marry a    cousin, she says, her parents threatened her life, telling her she had ruined the family honor. Now in her 30s, she hasn’t seen her family since. Today she    lives in Germany, where her nonprofit group, Sabatina, rescues girls whose fathers try to force them to wed.

“In honor-based culture, people think that girls could become too independent and make their own choices if they educate themselves,” she says. “They are afraid what could happen if girls learn to read and write.”

Just as slaveowners in the South were afraid of what could happen if their slaves learned to read and write. That’s why it was a crime to teach a slave to read.

Meanwhile teachers are picked off, one at a time.

UN Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown has condemned the shooting of a female teacher in Pakistan on Tuesday as a “Malala-style” incident.

Shahnaz Bibi was shot dead on Tuesday by two motorbike riders as she disembarked from a passenger van near the school where she taught in the Khyber tribal region.

No memoir for her.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Time check

Mar 28th, 2013 5:19 am | By

I’m leaving for the airport in three hours.

I just thought you’d like to know that.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Speaking out

Mar 27th, 2013 5:13 pm | By

Waleed Al-Husseini

Leo Igwe

Marie-Thérèse O’Loughlin

Maryam Namazie

Gina Khan



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Power to the fertilized eggs

Mar 27th, 2013 4:56 pm | By

So in North Dakota, as I mentioned in passing a few hours ago, the legislature has decided to define eggs as people.

North Dakota lawmakers voted on Friday afternoon to pass a “personhood” abortion ban, which would endow fertilized eggs with all the rights of U.S. citizens and effectively outlaw abortion. The measure, which passed the Senate last month, passed the House by a 57-35 vote and now heads to a ballot vote, likely in the next November election.

The fertilized eggs have all the rights of US citizens with the result that their mothers don’t. All rights for the egg, no rights for the woman the egg is in. The egg is everything the woman is nothing. Some twelve or thirteen years down the line, that egg herself might get pregnant, and goodbye her rights – she’ll be nostalgic for the time when she was just a fertilized egg and had all the rights of a citizen.

A personhood ban could have far-reaching consequences even beyond abortion care, since it will charge doctors who damage embryos with criminal negligence. Doctors in the state say it will also prevent them from performing in vitro fertilization, and some medical professionals have vowed to leave the state if it is signed into law.

Fewer but better North Dakotans.

There’s more.

Lawmakers endorsed a fourth anti-abortion bill last week that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy based on the disputed premise that fetuses feel pain at that point. The governor stopped short of saying he would sign it, but said: “I’ve already signed three bills. Draw your own conclusion.”

The signed measures, which take effect Aug. 1, are fueled in part by an attempt to close the Red River Women’s Clinic in Fargo — the state’s only abortion clinic.

Or they could just send all pregnant women to prison.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)