An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles

August 5, 2010

The Teabagger Style in American Politics

Somewhere out there, for some reason (I think I can blame Thomas Frank for this one) I wound up googling up a copy of The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Originally published in Harper’s Magazine circa 1964, it holds up pretty damn well. It’s like Richard Hofstadter was the Nostradamus of Wingnuts, except literally right. More right than he could have imagined, actually–he describes the proto-wingnuts of American history as decidedly fringe elements even within the right wing. Still, passages like this show a lot of insight:

The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millenialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date fort the apocalypse. (“Time is running out,” said Welch in 1951. “Evidence is piling up on many sides and from many sources that October 1952 is the fatal month when Stalin will attack.”)
As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated—if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.

***

It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry. Secret organizations set up to combat secret organizations give the same flattery. The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through “front” groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy. Spokesmen of the various fundamentalist anti-Communist “crusades” openly express their admiration for the dedication and discipline the Communist cause calls forth.

Sound familiar? (I have a post brewing somewhere still from when I read What’s the Matter with Kansas? about the mileage the US right has gotten out of choosing impossible goals, and the damage that same tactic has done to the left.)

Really, though, it’s not exactly prescience. Hofstadter was describing the ideological ancestors of today’s paranoid conservatives–constantly, intensely afraid that some enormous but invisible conspiracy of foreigners and the US elite was deliberately…doing something UnAmerican. Sometimes it’s ill-defined, sometimes it’s defined in ridiculous, implausible detail. A lot of the ideas that were floating around in ’64–that the President is a secret capital-C Communist, that the income tax is some sort of socialist plot, that the US is being intentionally invaded by non-anglo Catholic immigrants who want to destroy Our Way of Life*–still have a solid, sometimes growing (or regrowing) following.

It’s a long article by intertube standards, but worth the read. Just replace 2 of every 3 references to ‘communists’ with ‘terrorists,’ and you could write your own AM radio show.

*if you’re feeling strong-stomached, google ‘Aztlán conspiracy’ and look at some of the wingnutty top hits.

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August 4, 2010

XKCD FTW

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Radical Scientist @ 11:00 am

This is fucking awesome:

If you don’t read XKCD, you should. But I don’t need to tell you that, because you already do.  That is all.

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August 3, 2010

Why Aren’t There More Women in Computer Science? Because They’re Just Not Into Your Bullshit

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Ethan @ 8:23 pm

Female Computer Scientist has a great post up called “Women in CS: It’s not Nature, it’s Culture” in which she points out that the U.S.’s piss-poor recruitment of female students into university computer science programs is far from universal–many countries have gender parity, and in some, computer science is a female-dominated field. She offers up 5 specific suggestions on what US universities can do to fix this, all of which boil down to “So, please – stop mansplaining and start doing.”

I dated a math/CS double major toward the end of her undergrad years. She’s exceptionally good at shooting down sexist dickheads, but even so, she same home with some nerd-douche horror stories.* She’d occasionally refer offhandedly to ‘the other girl’ in her classes. The one. In a school with 30,000+ students. If I’d had to deal with that kind of environment just to get a freaking BS, I’d have gone with a less dudebro heavy program. Like agriculture. Or poultry science.

*Which I’m gonna keep to myself, since I haven’t asked if I could use her college unpleasant experiences as blogfodder.

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Name Change

Filed under: Blogging about Blogging — Tags: — Radical Scientist @ 4:12 pm

In a fit of internet housekeeping, I decided to change my blogonym to ‘Radical Scientist,’ because

A) I figure I should leave the title alone, now that people are actually reading this thing a little, and linking to it and such.And I’d already changed the subtitle.

B) I’d rather pretend to be a teeny bit more anonymous. Who among you  never wanted a secret identity? Especially a secret identity that your boss probably wouldn’t find when they google you?

C) No one else was using it, and it sounded kinda cool. It’s always hard to find people who are progressive or radical in science circles (Let’s face it, y’all: we’re collectively boring), and I’d like to see more scientists in radical circles (I try so hard not to grimace when some fellow-activist goes on a tear about it’s so tragic that The Establishment crushed kid’s souls with useless shit like physics and calculus, to keep them from discovering the Revolutionary Potential of Art. Art is great and all, but shit’s not gonna get done if all we do is hang out and propagandize each other)

Anyway, just FYI: I’m still running this thing on my own. This blog is my own personal treehouse in the forest of the internet. I’ll be changing over my screen names in other places too, as I get to it.

Also, I’m trying to fix the weird reverse-order comments thing. WordPress swears up and down it’s posting my comments in threaded, chronological order, so go figure. In the meantime, read bottom to top and pretend it’s fixed. Switching themes has helped for now, but I’m feeling kinda ‘meh’ about the WP Classic theme, so I’m gonna keep messing with it.

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August 2, 2010

Prepare to Have Your Mind Blown by Dinosaurs

Filed under: Education — Tags: , , — Ethan @ 11:00 am

A new study concludes that Triceratops weren’t a genus at all. They were young members of the genus Torosaurus, previously thought to be a related, larger, but less awesome genus. The confusion came about, they say, because Torosaurus species had different shaped head frills from Triceratops. John Scannella and Jack Horner, the authors of the study, put together a series of skulls (illustrated here) showing ‘Triceratops’ morphing toward a Torosaurid skull shape as they get larger and older. They say the bone in that frill stayed immature, and was thus exceptionally able to change shape much more than previous paleontologists thought possible.

The good news is Torosaurus have long been known to be totally badass-looking. Check out this 1905 rendition.

h/t to Boing Boing.

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What Does an Illegal Immigrant Look Like?

The other day, I was out drinking with some friends, when some regrettable dude decided to hit on my friend Lauren. Between his fumbling attempts to tell her she must want to hear she looks younger than she is, being too drunk to realize she was brutally mocking him, and some crash-and-burn I’ll get to in a sec, it was bad. I have never seen anyone try so hard to impress another human, and come away looking so dramatically unfuckable. I’m surprised she didn’t brand ‘Douchebag’ into his forehead to keep other people from hooking up wit him. Seriously.

The nail in the coffin was when he decided to fill a lull in the conversation by asking what everyone thought of the then-new Arizona SB 1070. When faced with a unanimous angry face, dude perked up. ‘Y’know’ he said ‘I think it’s great.’ We were then treated to a looooong diatribe about how, since the law prohibits racial profiling, obviously the cops would never racially profile. Instead, they will just use their immigration-status-sensing superpowers to ‘just know what they [undocumented immigrants] look like.’

Now, a good chunk of my family is Scandinavian–my uncle, some cousins, and a few people of more convoluted relationship to me immigrated to the US from one of the more glacial, fjord-laden parts of the world. My uncle lives in a small Appalachian town where most of his friends don’t even try to pronounce his name correctly. He has a Sweedish Chef-meets-Arnold Schwarzenegger accent, wears black socks with birkenstocks, and greeted the rumors that Obama would socialize medicine with a smug ‘About time, ya?’ Dude is clearly not from around those parts.

But no one ever questions his right to be in the US.

People sometimes think my uncle is a tourist. They ask him how long he’s been in the US, how he likes it here, and so on. But they don’t think of him as an immigrant, his blue-eyed face isn’t the one people have in mind when they say we need a ‘solution’ for immigration. He’s just some guy who happens to be from somewhere else originally. I doubt it ever occurs to anyone that he could possibly be undocumented, even though the difference is a paperwork slip away. Strangers never harass him for his documents or ask what he’s doing here. When he gets a speeding ticket,  goes to the hospital, or waits outside while his wife goes to vote, his immigration status never comes up. No one ever questions his right to be in this country.

I told this whole rambling story to Mt Strikeout.  How I’m sure that whole side of my family could run every stoplight in Arizona without a single cop pulling them over and drawling ‘Y’all are awful sunburned to be from around here. You got your green cards?’ About how no one ever asks to see my uncles papers even though he’s so clearly an immigrant.

‘Sure,’ he said triumphantly, ‘But does he look like an illegal immigrant?’

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August 1, 2010

Solar Power now Cheaper than Nuclear

Inhabit reports that one study in North Carolina shows solar-produced electricity from a new plant clocking in at 14 cents/killowatt hour, while nuclear-produced electricity clocks in at 16 cents. This is big news, potentially, for reasons I touched on here: photovoltaic solar (i.e. solar-produced electricity, as opposed to passive solar heating)  has been improving in leaps and bounds over the last decade or so, and as it does, it starts to cut into the profitability of dirtier energy sources.

Bulky, expensive, fragile glass panels are giving way to cheaper, flexible vinyl ones. Increased demand (especially from China) has allowed companies that make solar panels to scale up their operations, making each panel cheaper. There are still some drawbacks–those are some very large, non-renewable silicon wafers they use, the cheaper thin-film cells are a few percent less efficient than the crystalline cells, and so on.

The folks at Inhabit point out that this study isn’t even the tip-top of the solar world: this study used regular flat-panel-generated power, not any of the sexy concentrating reflectors shown above. And North Carolina isn’t exactly the sunniest place on earth. Moreover, they show the cost of nuclear power rising. Nuclear power plants are hugely expensive to construct, and when states use nuclear to add to their electric output, those costs get split between the consumers and taxpayers–it’s not like the company is going to just eat the cost. You can download the complete study, done by Duke and NC WARN, here. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with their money graph (though I don’t know why they insisted on using straight lines for their best fit curve, when the cost of nuclear is definitely more of an S-curve), and one of my favorite ever solar power station: this one in Seville, Spain, that channels sunlight toward a giant boiler/turbine tower. It works on the same principle as a coal burning plant, but with sunlight instead of coal. And it’s literally awesome:

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July 30, 2010

Recreational Sex is a Survival Strategy

Filed under: gender,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Ethan @ 7:00 pm

There are plenty of studies out there on human sexuality that seem to assume that evolution hasn’t quite caught up with all our modern sexual tinkering, seeing as how they start off assuming all sex, and all our sex drives, stem only from a fundamentally a reproductive urge (this one, which that claims that women who are approaching menopause become “more willing to engage in a variety of sexual activities to capitalize on their remaining childbearing years”  is what spurred my thoughts today) There are points where this makes sense–genetically-driven instinct won’t catch on to the advent of The Pill for a few millenia to come. But other purposes for sex, and forms of non-reproductively oriented sex, have been around for more than enough time.

Queer sex, oral, manual and anal sex are OLD. Judging from our closest living relatives, all those ways of fucking are older than we are as a species. Our hind brains may not have picked up on condoms yet, but ‘I don’t want to get pregnant, so how about you go down on me instead?’ is older than time.

And why should all sex be driven by reproduction? Humans do, and probably always have, used sex for lots of other things–for fun, to strengthen relationships, to ease tensions (and did I mention for fun?). We’re social creatures, and our gene’s survival depends not only on our ability to churn out babies, but on our ability to gain the love and support of others. With fucking. Or sharing food or whatever. But fucking is free.

I’m not an expert in human sexuality, so I’m curious: is there any evidence that having more not-PIV-sex is strongly correlated to having more PIV sex and higher pregnancy rates? If there’s not, wouldn’t it be important to distinguish between sex-in-general, which may or mat not include PIV sex, and sex that’s actually able to lead to pregnancy, when you’re doing research on sexuality and reproduction? Because it’s not a good idea to assume that when you ask someone about how often they have sex, or how intense their sexual fantasies are, that their personal definition of sex is all missionary, all the time.

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July 29, 2010

Never Saw it Coming

I was reading this editorial about the Shirley Sherrod debacle at the Nation by Melissa Harris Lacewell, when a little thought crossed my mind. Breitbart* must have assumed, on some level, that this would work. Riding high from his attacks on ACORN, and having suffered little blowback when his minions tried to tap a freaking Senator’s phone, I doubt he expected his frame-up of an obscure Obama administration official to backfire. There are a lot of variables there, most of which he correctly calculated–that the administration would react out of fear immediately (see Van Jones), that the media would give him press. There were only a few places where things didn’t go as expected: Sherrod stood up for herself rather than back away quietly, and the family she was accused of discriminating against stood up for her.

A lot has already been said about this whole thing, more completely and eloquently than I can say it. But reading Harris-Lacewell’s article, one thing stands out. Brietbart must have assumed that the poor white family in question, the Spooners,  wouldn’t come forward. That either they were redneck Georgia nobodies who wouldn’t notice they were being used in a blogospheric/inside-the-beltway scandal, or that they would stay silent if they did. What he did not anticipate was that they’d put their human decency and friendship with Sherrod ahead of racial loyalty, and call up CNN to tell the nearest reporter what was what.

In the Teabagger Mythos, it’s basically unthinkable that anyone with such impeccable Real Americans ™ credentials as the Spooners (Farmers? Check. White? Check. From an especially Real American state? Check. And so on)  would have a 20 year friendship with a federal official. It’s impossible that they would regard a woman of color who had any sort of power over them with anything but the rankest contempt, no matter how she used that power–even if it was to save their asses in a time of crisis.

Now, I don’t think they deserve endless reams of praise for this. I doubt there was any risk for them in doing so. And between Brietbart’s outright lying and everything Sherrod had done for them, it’s more like they would have been horrible people for not stepping forward. And it’s not fair that their word should carry so much weight, above Sherrod’s own, and even when the unedited video of her actual remarks is readily available.

But I will say this: When poor white farmers in Georgia build relationships with their black neighbors, and when they put defending those friends ahead of letting some white guy across the country exploit them for political gain, the conservative movement in America will be fucked. I dare say they never saw it coming.

*I am assuming Brietbart intentionally posted an edited video to attack Sherrod. The subtext, of course, insinuated that under the Obama administration the USDA would discriminate against white farmers, when in fact the USDA has a long history of discrimination against farmers of color, and moreover Sherrod was working for an independent group when she helped the Spooners find the bankruptcy lawyer who helped them keep their farm.

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July 27, 2010

Shove Your Teachable Moments

For, what, the second or third time in as many months, I’ve found myself jumping into a commenting fit of such epic proportions over at Gin and Tacos that I couldn’t resist dragging it out into it’s own full post.

Long story short: Jennifer Keeton,  student in Augusta State University’s counseling program is suing the school, because she both wants to become a school councilor and insists that homosexuality is a disease in need of curing (by her, I guess). And because the school has pointed out that, professionally, that’s not acceptable. It’s a little hard to tell what’s going on at all, because the Augusta Chronicle report is both muddled and leans heavily toward Keeton’s perspective, avoiding any discussion of exactly how she managed to annoy her professors into suggesting a ‘remediation plan’ to dissuade her from, er, “voice[ing] her Christian beliefs inside and outside the classroom on homosexuality and other biblical teachings.”

I am honestly a little impressed that Keaton managed to make such a nuisance of herself that the school got up the guts to tell her she can’t just rant at the children she councils about how Jesus hates them. It’s not easy to get a Georgia university official to tell students to keep their insane brand of Christianity a little more to themselves.

Now, for starters, I am dubious of the idea that extra training will help here. And honestly, I’m a little skeptical of the implied approach here–they seem to be hoping to actually change her mind, by ordering* her into diversity training and telling her to go to Augusta’s Pride last month. First, I don’t think they’ll be able to make her change her opinion so easily. Bigotry doesn’t just melt the first time someone tells the bigot they’re not very nice. Secondly, I think she has a right to hold her fucked up beliefs, even while graduating from a public university. She just needs to understand that she can never, ever let them enter her professional life, because doing so would be a serious ethical breech. Or she could find another line of work.

Also, on behalf of all queer people everywhere, I have one thing to say to the professors who suggested Keeton head to the nearest Gay Pride Parade to learn some tolerance: What the hell are you thinking?! Pride parades aren’t there to show insane homophobes that we’re Just Like Everyone Else. That’s what PFLAG pamphlets and the more risqué Lifetime made for TV movies are for. Pride parades are a chance to wear ridiculous outfits, get drunk in the middle of the day, and enjoy some strength in numbers for once. Sort of like St Patrick’s Day was, back when Irish immigrants faced some actual hostility in the US (but also wanted to get drunk and party). I can’t imagine being heckled by drag queens or browsing the lube selection of local sex toy shop is going to help Keeton warm to treating some poor gay high school student with respect or human dignity. Don’t get me wrong, I love drag queens and sex toy stores, but this is just not the way to go.

And more importantly, I doubt any of the actual participants would want her there. It’s a public event and Keeton can come if she wants to, but I’m a little disappointed that her professors thought it was more important to blow her little mind than to let the entire LGBT community of Augusta enjoy their biggest event of the year without one more hater sneering at them. Not everything queer people do together is about helping sheltered, bigoted assholes realize the error of their ways. Actually, most of the fun of something like pride comes from taking a break from worrying what people who hate you think. The ASU faculty shouldn’t ruin that in a misguided attempt to change Keeton’s mind, they should tell her to go home and think very hard about whether she’d rather keep her homophobia private or pick a new line of work.

While I was an undergrad, there was a controversy that started when a student made some hyperbolic but genuinely mean death threats to a gay professor on his student evaluation. The professor complained to the administration, who shrugged. The evaluations are supposed to be anonymous (though they were done online in a traceable way) (Correction: He recognized the student’s handwriting), and the administration didn’t think the threats were serious enough to bother with. When the professor got the same threats at the end of the next semester (he’s in a small department, and is the only instructor for several mandatory classes), he called the campus paper and the LGBT life office. Long story short, the administration threw up a flurry of ass-covering, it turned out the school’s only route for filing bias complaints was to call the cops (which inspires another rant unto itself), and eventually, the school ponied up the offending fratboy, who they ordered to do sensitivity training. Which he also got out of by suing.

The point of that story, and I do have one, is that they school also ordered him to volunteer at the campus LGBT student center, thinking a little exposure Real Life Gays would teach him a valuable lesson of tolerance. (FYI, the LGBT center’s director flat-out refused, and eventually won) Now, remember kids, this guy was in trouble for repeatedly making homophobic death threats to a professor. The LGBT center is the only set-aside safe space for queer students on a large, very hostile campus. So…the administration thought it would be a good idea to order him in there. Because making empty gestures toward teaching a mean straight kid a lesson is more important than the comfort and safety of every queer student on campus. Because they can’t imagine a use for a queer space other than as a teaching tool for the straight majority. This is why we can’t have nice things, folks.

I’m sure this doesn’t just happen to queer folks. I’d be pretty surprised if these same administrations don’t deal with other -isms the same way–send the privileged offender to hang out with the people they oppress, and hope they learn their lesson. Do it without any visible concern for the people they’re supposed to be learning from. This is tokenism at it’s worst–treating the organizations de-privileged people have built for themselves as nothing more than an educational diorama, there to demonstrate our mysterious ways to the baffled majority.

*Hypothetically, the ‘remediation plan’ is mandatory, but the news article implies that she’s not going along with it (and is suing instead) and states that the school hasn’t taken any action to expel her anyway. So, she’s not exactly being persecuted out of the building, as she suggests.

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