All’s well with the red pill

Am I happier as an atheist?

A recent conversation made me wonder. If I could go back, would I re-take the red pill? It’s a loaded question—it assumes that my happiness is measurable and that I used to believe. Let’s grant those assumptions. While I don’t remember when I turned towards atheism, or at least skepticism, I’m sure I had faith sometime. I hated religious rituals, but I did talk to god as a child—I don’t know why I spoke to god in English and not Tamil or Hindi—and made deals where my end of the bargain was to give up meat or watch less TV—If god kept records, I had a crappy credit score. I was sure that giving up pleasure was a way of pleasing god. I also remember refraining from some things for fear of divine punishment. So, call it nebulous if you want, I believed.

"You take the blue pill – the story ends,...

If you haven’t watched the Matrix, please do. Seriously, everything else can wait (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Growing up, my room doubled as the prayer room, an antithesis if there ever was one, and had pictures of many Hindu gods. I remember sitting cross-legged before them to pray. But I didn’t feel like the people in those pictures were there for me despite the super-anthropomorphism characteristic to Hindu deities. I would rather defer to abstract divinity than the mythological characters and their entertaining stories. Even when I did believe, I never crystallized in my mind a deity who protected me and cared for my betterment. Perhaps my self-esteem was so low that I was wary of the wrath of god more than I anticipated his bounty, or I naturally feared bad things more than I looked forward to good ones. Either way, the simplistic connection of unhappiness after an external driving force or safety net disappears didn’t apply to me. It probably applies to fewer people than we imagine, and a tinier fraction of them are permanently scared after leaving religion.

Becoming more or less happy after rejecting god might be just a coincidence. People who reject god after deep thought and analysis might turn that microscope inwards and, depending on how their life is going, experience mood changes. If we analyze the question temporally—am I happier now, and is being an atheist simply a coincidence?—I don’t know. It’s possible that my twenties have brought an introspection that is correlated with depression or mental malaise, and that the same introspection couldn’t let me remain an honest believer. I have no way to rule it out or even apply a realistic probability to it.

Why I am an atheist is answered by science. God as a hypothesis is untenable. But while that explains why I don’t believe, it leaves room for future belief—as all evaluations of scientific hypotheses do—and of my liking and respecting god if his existence is proven.

If god wasn’t a totalitarian megalomaniac, I might ignore the scientific evidence in my eagerness to praise and propitiate him. If god didn’t create so much pain, I fear I wouldn’t care that his existence is unlikely, because I’d be lost in all the beauty and the pleasure in the world. In truth, I sometimes wish god was real, so I can have an object for my contempt—because it is unsatisfying to hate abstract concepts like poverty, wretchedness, malice, and—ironic as it is—hatred.

But that doesn’t answer my original question—am I happier as an atheist? I think I am, in a Eudaimonic sense, because accepting that a lot of the world’s injustices are random is the first step to making one’s peace with them.

I’m not shaving until you accept that we came from monkeys

The opposite is true to a lot of people; many feel lonely and abandoned when their brains reject the god hypothesis. Happiness is irrelevant to truth, but not to the discovery of truth. We sometimes choose not to investigate matters where one of the answers might destroy the axioms upon which our lives are balanced. But if truths make you happy as absolutes, because you discovered or learned them, and not only when they confirmed your suspicions or disproved your theories, losing faith is a step out of the blues. It helps to realize that your successes and failings are a product of chance and effort and not divine planning.

As an atheist, am I no longer afraid of death? I fear dying—I don’t want to experience cancer or being crushed under a car or fading away as someone dials up my morphine—but the idea of not existing some day doesn’t steal much of my sleep. I’ve done it before. For most of time, I haven’t existed. In fact, my existence is but an aberration in the time continuum, which has done fine without me.

I won’t miss me when I’m gone.

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Why you should probably do it

Seriously people, just do it.

Because if you don’t you’ll keep wondering. Should I have? What if I had and it made me feel better? What if I inspired others? Then everyone would have done it. I’d be a pioneer. What if Abercrombie made a brand of what I was wearing when I did it and distributed it poor hungry kids in Nigeria — you know — with some food.

English: The image of Abercrombie & Fitch today.

But they’d have to starve to wear it (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The worst is not doing it, because someone else might do it if you wait too long. If they do, your doing it means nothing. Well, it might mean piracy or plagiarism, but who knows—that shit is hard to prove. And if they do it, you’ll have to find something else that you want to do but aren’t doing — something else to obsess over, a different cost-benefit analysis. That’s not easy. Then you’re still the same person, but with another thing you’ve almost done. Almost doing is like not doing, but you’re the annoying not-doer who keeps talking about that which he is going to do, which is cool, if your friends are like that guy in that movie whose mind was like an etch a sketch every fifteen minutes. (By the way, there’s this incredibly dirty and funny joke that I can’t enjoy because I know the punchline, but he can, again and again.)

Memento (film)

…and the farmer says…damn it, where’s my polaroid? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

History is full of doers — the not-doers are eliminated for space-saving — and doers are full of history. Not-doers are full too, of other things. The best not-doer appears on the brink of doing all the time, without talking ad nauseam about it of course. Over time, the not-doers don’t reproduce, because that involves doing. So they’re weeded out. The doers remain. It takes a lot to be a not-doer. Doing ends up negating the not-doing. Depending on what you do, how much and with how much intensity, you can figure out how long you must not-do before convincingly appearing as a not-doer. Of course, appearing is doing, and that’s a conundrum.

Why would you not-do anyway? So you can plan more, think more, and maybe do it better later? But you won’t. Because you didn’t. Only you know why. None of those reasons will change. You’re not doing it better. You’re just better at not-doing, also you’re regaling people (not really) around campfires with stories of how good it’s gonna be when you finally do it — which it will be — it will be awesome. But you won’t do it. So it’s hypothetically awesome. Which is fine, but it takes a million hypothetical-awesomes to make an awesome. You can disagree with me on that, but to prove me wrong, you need calculations, which of course, involves doing. So you can never know, better trust me. If you can trust, without doing that is. When you do do, which you won’t, trust me, I hope you can…oh what’s the point? You’re never gonna do it.

Air Max 90 CL

They have the right idea (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m not saying you’re not equipped to do it. You probably are, who knows. Checking for qualifications requires me to do something. So I can’t know. Knowing involves doing, and doing what I need — to know — also needs doing. So I can never know if you can do. I’d like to give you the benefit of doubt, but that means I must do. In fact, even doubting is doing. So I can be certain. Being is not doing. Or it would have been “to do be or not to do be,” which let’s face it, (or not) is not quite as pithy.

Those who did things did them because they needed to be done. Now you’ll say that needing is doing too, but things can need. Things can’t do. So needing is not doing. QED. No I can’t translate that for you. You know why. But do you? Can you?

Draft skeletons in my closet

6:30 pm

I’m sitting down to write something. And it’s gonna be the shit.

What to write about? Nonfiction—no that requires a lot of reading, too late to start now. How about a nice story? That’s right. When I get up, I’ll have a novel…that inspires tears…from Hemingway…in a fetal position cursing god for making me more talented. I need characters, plot arcs, story lines, a central theme…

You know that non-fiction idea is looking better and better—the heart wants what it wants.

7:00 pm

What do I begin with? Lesser men choose titles, rough measures of article size—but I’m not a wimp. First, the font. Because the only thing worse than getting kicked in the nuts is writing a treatise on macroeconomics that’s a Nobel shoo-in only to learn that Stockholm despises Helvetica. (Why do you think they bumped me for Krugman?) Too many choices, but I’ll know it when I see it.

7:15 pm

I keep going from Georgia to Courier New to those special typewriter fonts I downloaded from dafont.com and all the way back to Georgia. Times New Roman? What am I, an animal? But I admit that Times New Roman tempts me like Jon Hamm probably does to Ted Haggard. No, I need the right font. Courier New is the best—everything I write looks serious. Like a philosopher who’s finally decided to make metaphysics his bitch.

Or does it? What if I just look pretentious like those people who drink Chardonnay and say things like avant-garde and milieu?

7:45 pm

I imagine myself as a heroic Thomas Jefferson punching declarative statements on a typewriter before realizing that Jefferson died forty years before the typewriter was invented.

So everything he wrote was by hand. How did he get past the first sentence? How come no one crushed his spirit by saying, Your ‘s’ looks like an ‘o’? (Yes, I’m looking at you mom.)

8:00 pm

No, Courier New won’t cut it. Who am I kidding? I routinely end sentences with prepositions, and I recently declared my closet desire to shamelessly split infinitives, and I used ‘who’ instead of ‘whom’ in the previous sentence. I need a non-prescriptivist font, preferably one that doesn’t smell too Victorian. (Not that I know what Victorians smelled like, but I hear they showered sporadically.)

I can’t think straight until the words staring at me look alright. That’s how Christopher Hitchens did it right? May his soul rest in…wait, what?

8:15 pm

Maybe the font is fine, what about the screen brightness? I don’t want it too bright, do I? A soft light that prevents eye-strain without making me squint is what I need. But first, some music. Nothing but the soft gentle stirrings of Adele to boost creativity. Did I say Adele? I meant Metallica, with beer, and a shotgun.

9:15 pm

Alright, so that episode of Breaking Bad was awesome, but I really need to write now. Hell, no way I’d have been this inspired if I’d started typing away without … you know … inspiration. Hey, how about this for a story — a guy with a low-profile life in Smalltown, USA gets cancer and decides to cook meth…no wait…I’m getting close now, the idea is not far away. Come on…

9:30 pm

I can’t be creative on an empty stomach. I need some Chinese. All that stops me from being Tom Wolfe is sesame chicken with pork fried rice. Great, no cash, meaning I have to tell my credit card number to the post-doc at Hunan palace who likes to repeat every digit loudly, his accent disappearing with every number. But he forgets the chicken wings every time.

I guess I’ll resume after dinner.

11:00 pm

That’s it. I’m not getting up until I write something of value. I almost sympathize with people now—how empty and bourgeoisie their sundry lives will seem after reading my outpourings? But should I write now? My mind isn’t the sharpest after bingeing on Chinese. The people deserve better; I’ll start writing tomorrow early morning, fresh. By 8 am, I’ll be emailing the New York Times.

9:00 am

Is Courier New really the right way to go?

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Sartorial maladies

7 thoughts on Satyamev Jayate (female feticide)

Is there anything more embarrassing to our national conscience as Indians than the demand for a male child and the extents to which it takes us?

Episode summary

The show opened with a story about a woman’s fetus being aborted by her family without her knowledge, under the guise of a check-up. Knowing India’s sex ratio and male-child obsession, it’s not hard to decipher that the fetus was female. Another woman got her nose bitten by her husband for conceiving a girl. After discussing such stories, Aamir Khan showed us the decline of female births per 1000 male births over a few decades. He explained that sex-selective abortion happens more among the rich and upper-class people—not the poor and uneducated as we would like to believe. Aamir interspersed interviews with sympathetic victims with phrases on the importance of the girl-child and how it’s the sperm that determines the sex of the offspring and that blaming mothers for fetal gender is as baseless as it is immoral. The audience seemed almost infomercial-like and appear to be crying on cue. The show ended with Aamir saying that we need fast-track courts to punish the wrong-doers. Oh and by the way, women are awesome, mothers are awesome.

1. The issue of consent

Of course, nobody bothered to isolate this question—what about the mother’s consent? There’s no legal or moral crime here bigger than aborting a fetus without the woman’s consent. Clubbing it with anti-female-feticide sentiment dilutes the issue. Of course, to tackle a type of crime, its societal cause must be noted. The desire for a male child makes people want to abort female fetuses (feti?). If that desire is irrational or immoral, making people aware of that is important. So, let’s address that murky question.

2. Should female feticide be legal?

Most people I know and hang out with are pro-abortion. It is a yes or no question—just not easy. If the law considers a fetus living, it cannot be killed—abortion should be illegal. If a fetus is non-living, it can be legally killed. The ‘why’ should be up to the person on whose body the fetus takes maximum toll—the woman. Proscribing abortion where you find it distasteful is basically punishing people for their thoughts. Why stop here? A stray homicidal thought when your boss forces overtime or refuses a pay-raise would become punishable.

Making prenatal sex-determination illegal—like many other prohibitions—has just made it expensive. That’s one reason female-feticide happens more in rich households.

3. Is it moral to want a male child?

If I ever decide to spawn, I wouldn’t want a boy, or a girl for that matter. But it’s no longer cool to voice a preference a male child. It’s kosher to declare how much you want a daughter. This kind of political correctness sweeps biases under the carpet. There is nothing moral about preferring a daughter to a son.

Let me be a little cynical here. In today’s India, conceiving a boy is a good retirement plan. Under that axiom, is it wrong for people to want financial security? It sounds repugnant to kill a fetus because it’s female, but once we say that the fetus isn’t living to support abortion—rightly I might add—we must give the woman the right to abort her baby for any reason she deems fit.

4. Oh! The sex ratio

The skewed sex ratio is bad, but for whom? Fewer women means greater demand for each available woman. LET ME MAKE IT CLEAR THAT I THINK IT IS WRONG TO SELL ANYONE, MAN OR WOMAN. We must punish the sale of women. The concept of owning people needs to die.

UPDATE: This article in the economist says that skewed sex-ratio is leading to women immigrating from neighboring countries like Bangladesh and Myanmar. Also the sex ratio is improving—or rather—worsening slower than before. The worst offending states like Punjab and Haryana are improving quickly. It is unlikely, says Monica Das Gupta (pdf link) of the World Bank, that India will ever reach Chinese levels. 

But, if the rich community finds itself short of eligible women, rich men will start marrying middle-class women. And so on. That has been the tradition everywhere. Typically, women marry up in lifestyle and finance, and men marry up in looks. Whom we marry is a combination of family compatibility, wealth compatibility, attractiveness etc., and these are fungible—there are many rich unattractive men with pretty wives who used to be poor. As this happens, women in each economic tier will marry men in a higher economic tier. So, each individual woman has a better chance to marry up, or to be appointed to a female-only job. It’s just statistics. The losers in this situation are poor men. Men in the lowest economic tier will suffer the lack of a partner.

The show highlights this by caricaturing what should have been a serious interview with some older men who are unable to marry. But that’s not society’s problem. No man is owed a wife.

5. How the show annoyed me

So many to choose from—Aamir Khan saying, “Kitna seekhney ko milta hai hamare Adivasi bhaiyon se!” (Look how much we can learn from our Adivasi brothers!) or people cheering the homeless woman who said, “Hamein yeh paap nahi karna” (I don’t want to commit this crime) about abortion.

6. What’s the harm?

Most people would chide me with Oh come on. Surely, the proletariat of India needs simplified black-and-white information delivered from Aamir Khan’s lips and seasoned with drama. As long as people don’t abort female fetuses, really, what’s the harm? The harm is that this is top-down misinformation. No matter how you explain lying-for-good or embellishing the truth, ends don’t justify means. The right of the pregnant woman to not be harmed is paramount, and it shouldn’t be clubbed with the ‘immorality’ of female feticide.

7. Any positives?

  1. We must appoint a fast-track court for those cases where the mother was side-stepped by the family. Only the pregnant woman can decide whether a fetus is carried to term. That point was highlighted.
  2. The importance of the girl-child was well-explained.
  3. Despite his smug self-righteousness, Aamir seemed sincere.
  4. Who knows, the resultant awareness might help.

I know the second episode is already out—better late than never I guess.

What I saw at NECSS 2012

I was introduced to the skeptic community by Rationally Speaking, a podcast I found while wandering aimlessly on the iTunes Store. I also joined the New York City Skeptics Meetup group, which meets once a month to discuss issues related to science and skepticism. That’s where I learned about the North East Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS, pronounced nexus.) On April 21 and 22, four hundred eager skeptics were packed into the auditorium of the Florence Gould Hall in Midtown Manhattan. The speakers, a veritable who’s who of science and skeptical inquiry, blended passion and humor as they discussed among other things the wonders of science and logical skepticism.

Even though his presentation was titled Dance your Ph.D., John Bohannon talked about war statistics for almost half his time. His presentation was interesting and informative, but the title led me to believe that his entire presentation was about videos of people describing their research through dance, which, to be fair, the other half was. PZ Myers, on the other hand, shafted us on Sunday morning by calling his presentation Cephaloporn, and then telling us why he loves biology.

Deborah Feldman, author of Unorthodox, all of 25 years, explained how she snuck around to read books during her cloistered Hasidic upbringing, complete with religious-only education, arranged marriage at 17, becoming a mother soon after (seems redundant, Hasidic Jews are hardly known for family planning), and leaving the fold to pursue an independent but undoubtedly intimidating life as a single mother shunned by the people she once called her own. I couldn’t even imagine kids growing up in Brooklyn, NY bereft of English and an egalitarian education.

The search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, or SETI, is responsible for some cognitive dissonance. It blows my mind but I always feel there are better uses for that money, and Seth Shostak didn’t affect that position. Ethan Brown, the 12-year old genius, squared and cubed and cube-rooted numbers on stage, proving once more that some minds are phenomenal. At one point, he asked for four random numbers, to form a four-digit number that he would square on the fly. The fourth number called out was a zero. He replied, with a puzzled-expression like, “Could someone be this dumb?” that this would be like squaring a 3-digit number and multiplying by 100. He walked out, just like he walked in, our jaws near the floor during the whole thing. James Randi, the amazing one himself, was on on next. He spoke from the heart, if that expression has ever been true it was that day, about the vitriol he has for psychics, homeopaths and faith-healers who swindle people with anything from pseudoscience to plain trickery. He was followed by the physicist Debbie Berebichez, who appealed to us to encourage more young girls into the hard sciences, or at least, to convince them that they aren’t misfits in calculus class. I agree, although I disagreed when she expressed her disappointment that working women (but not men) who are competent are often less-liked. I’m sure men feel something similar, but it is possible that they have fewer affiliation needs at work.

Florence Gould Hall (Courtesy: nytb.org)

The highlight of the evening was a fundraising reception. For skeptics with means, this was one of the ways to support NECSS. So yours truly decided politely to sit this one out (Why? Please google means and then graduate student). Then our host, Jamy Ian Swiss, called out a seat number randomly for a free pass to the fundraising reception at Connolly’s pub. So there I was, one out of four hundred, with a dose-dumping of a life’s worth of luck and a chance to rub elbows with the luminaries of the weekend. What I learned later was that I also got a tête à tête with James Randi – who’s very approachable  and down-to-earth, thank you for asking – over drinks and hors d’oeuvres. What do you know, being randomly selected has positive connotations too.

With Randi at Connolly’s (Fundraising reception)

At the reception, Jay Novella of the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe invited me to watch as they recorded the show live (to be aired on May 6) at the Hilton hotel that night. Thanks Jay! The usual cast, with Seth Shostak and James Randi guest-starring, discussed a bunch of things, culminating in a powwow over whether sloths could swim. Apparently sloths climb down trees to crap at their base. I don’t remember much else, except my bladder being ready to burst.

“Seriously, I think we need to take a break before that guy in the corner wets the carpet.”

I took the elevator down 43 stories to pee when they took a 5-minute break. On my way back, guess what, the elevator needs a key-card to take you above the 39th floor, so I got some exercise. Well, the more you sweat, the less you want to pee. After the taping, which ended around midnight, I took an F train back to Queens and the real world.
Sunday morning, I was back at the venue at 10 am. After PZ Myers’ Cephaloporn, Joe Nickell, probably the only full-time investigator of strange occurrences told us about the case of the two Will Wests, the case that made fingerprinting official in the U.S. Robert Olsen is skeptical of how actually significant that case really is.
Then I watched a live recording of a special episode of Rationally Speaking in that they spoke about The Simulation Hypothesis and the problem of natural evil, but also that Massimo was out-worded by David Kyle Johnson.

Julia Galef, David Kyle Johnson and Massimo Pigliucci on The Simulation Hypothesis

George Hrab explained dealing with grief as an atheist. We non-believers vacillate between being tired and offended at being asked, “What do you think of when you’re sad?” or told that we will need god when we lose a loved one. Seriously, only a megalomaniac would foster complex relationships between people and then develop elaborate schemes to separate them, often with pain and suffering as by-products, just so they need his murderous shoulder to cry on. I don’t know how many logical fallacies believers help themselves to, but Hai-Ting Chinn mocked out a quite a few in her operatic solo and then a duet with George Hrab.

Probably the most awkward part of the conference was the pre-fist-fight between Massimo Pigliucci and J. Scott Armstrong on futurism and the ability of experts to predict outcomes better than laymen or a tossed coin. Good thing Michael Rogers was in the middle, really. Predicting the future does seem riddled with publication and confirmation biases, if you ask me. We remember successful predictions and successful predictors more often, and it’s possible by sheer probability that some people are right far more often than they are wrong. That doesn’t make them any better than the rest of us.

J. Scott Armstrong, Michael Rogers and Massimo Pigliucci on futurism

Brian Wecht came on next, and spoke about theoretical physics, bosons, fermions and particle accelerators to name a few topics. He ended his speech by calling string-theory haters d**ks, and I agree. There it was: a great conference, which brought together bright and insightful people to meditate, cogitate and debate questions of morality, spirituality and religion and to agree that people who hate string theory are d**ks.

“That’s all you’re taking from my presentation?”

Call me an atheist, a non-believer, a rationalist, a skeptic or really whatever but NECSS was the first place where I realized how not alone I am in this transgression. Attending a geek-fest is fun in itself, but the cherry on top was a shot at meeting some really impressive  people, and learning simply how much smarter than me they are. It is actually quite liberating. The weight on one’s shoulders gets considerably lighter knowing there are people far more significant. Skepticism, to me, has always been about not having an allegiance to anything except the truth. In so doing, skepticism sets the mind free, and I don’t ever want to be tethered again, no matter how comfortable, how reassured or secure it makes me, and those who disagree probably hate string theory.

What I saw at NECSS 2012

I was introduced to the skeptic community by Rationally Speaking, a podcast I found while wandering aimlessly on the iTunes Store. I also joined the New York City Skeptics Meetup group, which meets once a month to discuss issues related to science and skepticism. That’s where I learned about the North East Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS, pronounced nexus.) On April 21 and 22, four hundred eager skeptics were packed into the auditorium of the Florence Gould Hall in Midtown Manhattan. The speakers, a veritable who’s who of science and skeptical inquiry, blended passion and humor as they discussed among other things the wonders of science and logical skepticism.

Even though his presentation was titled Dance your Ph.D., John Bohannon talked about war statistics for almost half his time. His presentation was interesting and informative, but the title led me to believe that his entire presentation was about videos of people describing their research through dance, which, to be fair, the other half was. PZ Myers, on the other hand, shafted us on Sunday morning by calling his presentation Cephaloporn, and then telling us why he loves biology.

Deborah Feldman, author of Unorthodox, all of 25 years, explained how she had to sneak around to read books during her cloistered Hasidic upbringing, complete with private, religious-only education, arranged marriage at 17, becoming a mother soon after (seems redundant, Hasidic Jews are hardly known for family planning), and leaving the fold to pursue an independent but undoubtedly intimidating life as a single mother shunned by the people she once called her own. I couldn’t even imagine kids growing up in Brooklyn, NY bereft of English and an egalitarian education.

The search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, or SETI, is responsible for some cognitive dissonance. It blows my mind but I always feel there are better uses for that money, and Seth Shostak didn’t affect that position. Ethan Brown, the 12-year old genius, squared and cubed and cube-rooted numbers on stage, proving once more that some minds are phenomenal. At one point, he asked for four random numbers, to form a four-digit number that he would square on the fly. The fourth number called out was a zero. He replied, with a puzzled-expression like, “Could someone be this dumb?” that this would be like squaring a 3-digit number and multiplying by 100. He walked out, just like he walked in, our jaws near the floor during the whole thing. James Randi, the amazing one himself, was on on next. He spoke from the heart, if that expression has ever been true it was that day, about the vitriol he has for psychics, homeopaths and faith-healers who swindle people with anything from pseudoscience to plain trickery. He was followed by the physicist Debbie Berebichez, who appealed to us to encourage more young girls into the hard sciences, or at least, to convince them that they aren’t misfits in calculus class. I agree, although I disagreed when she expressed her disappointment that working women (but not men) who are competent are often less-liked. I’m sure men feel something similar, but it is possible that they have fewer affiliation needs at work.

Florence Gould Hall (Courtesy: nytb.org)

The highlight of the evening was a fundraising reception. For skeptics with means, this was one of the ways to support NECSS. So yours truly decided politely to sit this one out (Why? Please google means and then graduate student). Then our host, Jamy Ian Swiss, called out a seat number randomly for a free pass to the fundraising reception at Connolly’s pub. So there I was, one out of four hundred, with a dose-dumping of a life’s worth of luck and a chance to rub elbows with the luminaries of the weekend. What I learned later was that I also got a tête à tête with James Randi – who’s very approachable  and down-to-earth, thank you for asking – over drinks and hors d’oeuvres. What do you know, being randomly selected has positive connotations too.

With Randi at Connolly’s (Fundraising reception)

At the reception, Jay Novella of the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe invited me to watch as they recorded the show live (to be aired on May 6) at the Hilton hotel that night. Thanks Jay! The usual cast, with Seth Shostak and James Randi guest-starring, discussed a bunch of things, culminating in a powwow over whether sloths could swim. Apparently sloths climb down trees to crap at their base. I don’t remember much else, except my bladder being ready to burst.

“Seriously, I think we need to take a break before that guy in the corner wets the carpet.”

I took the elevator down 43 stories to pee when they took a 5-minute break. On my way back, guess what, the elevator needs a key-card to take you above the 39th floor, so I got some exercise. Well, the more you sweat, the less you want to pee. After the taping, which ended around midnight, I took an F train back to Queens and the real world.
Sunday morning, I was back at the venue at 10 am. After PZ Myers’ Cephaloporn, Joe Nickell, probably the only full-time investigator of strange occurrences told us about the case of the two Will Wests, the case that made fingerprinting official in the U.S. Robert Olsen is skeptical of how actually significant that case really is.
Then I watched a live recording of a special episode of Rationally Speaking in that they spoke about The Simulation Hypothesis and the problem of natural evil, but also that Massimo was out-worded by David Kyle Johnson.

Julia Galef, David Kyle Johnson and Massimo Pigliucci on The Simulation Hypothesis

George Hrab explained dealing with grief as an atheist. We non-believers vacillate between being tired and offended at being asked, “What do you think of when you’re sad?” or told that we will need god when we lose a loved one. Seriously, only a megalomaniac would foster complex relationships between people and then develop elaborate schemes to separate them, often with pain and suffering as by-products, just so they need his murderous shoulder to cry on. I don’t know how many logical fallacies believers help themselves to, but Hai-Ting Chinn mocked out a quite a few in her operatic solo and then a duet with George Hrab.

Probably the most awkward part of the conference was the pre-fist-fight between Massimo Pigliucci and J. Scott Armstrong on futurism and the ability of experts to predict outcomes better than laymen or a tossed coin. Good thing Michael Rogers was in the middle, really. Predicting the future does seem riddled with publication and confirmation biases, if you ask me. We remember successful predictions and successful predictors more often, and it’s possible by sheer probability that some people are right far more often than they are wrong. That doesn’t make them any better than the rest of us.

J. Scott Armstrong, Michael Rogers and Massimo Pigliucci on futurism

Brian Wecht came on next, and spoke about theoretical physics, bosons, fermions and particle accelerators to name a few topics. He ended his speech by calling string-theory haters d**ks, and I agree. There it was: a great conference, which brought together bright and insightful people to meditate, cogitate and debate questions of morality, spirituality and religion and to agree that people who hate string theory are d**ks.

“That’s all you’re taking from my presentation?”

Call me an atheist, a non-believer, a rationalist, a skeptic or really whatever but NECSS was the first place where I realized how not alone I am in this transgression. Attending a geek-fest is fun in itself, but the cherry on top was a shot at meeting some really impressive  people, and learning simply how much smarter than me they are. It is actually quite liberating. The weight on one’s shoulders gets considerably lighter knowing there are people far more significant. Skepticism, to me, has always been about not having an allegiance to anything except the truth. In so doing, skepticism sets the mind free, and I don’t ever want to be tethered again, no matter how comfortable, how reassured or secure it makes me, and those who disagree probably hate string theory.

10 not so common Mac OS X shortcuts

You’ll be using these keys (myfirstmac.com)

Many websites feature keyboard shortcuts for OS X. Most of them bury the good shortcuts under a sea of common ones that everybody knows and those that nobody will use and end up as trivia. So, I have compiled the ones I use regularly and weeded out those that seemed common knowledge. Some of these shortcuts are keyboard-alternatives to using the mouse/touchpad. Others automate to save time. I have provided Windows alternatives in some cases.

UPDATE: Some of the browser-based shortcuts may not work with all browsers. They work with Google Chrome.

1. Shortcut: Cmd+L    
    Function: takes cursor to address bar

You want to go to a particular website, but you’re too lazy to drag your mouse pointer to the address bar. Pressing Cmd+L (I wrote L in uppercase for easy identification only; please don’t press shift!).

For Windows users: Alt + d

Of course, sometimes you want to go to the address bar just to copy the URL. In that case…

2. Shortcut: Cmd+option+c (in Google Chrome)
    Function: Copies current URL

The option key is also called alt. This copies to clipboard the URL or link of the website you’re on. You can then right-click anywhere and paste. Again, if you’re only copying the URL to share by email…

3. Shortcut: Cmd+shift+I (in Google Chrome)
    Function: Opens a compose-mail dialog with current URL in body

When I want to share something interesting I find online, the altruism is tempered by the effort it takes to copy the URL, open mail client (or web app), click compose, paste the URL in the body and await grateful responses. Yikes!

But, this nifty shortcut opens a ‘compose mail’ dialog in another tab with said URL in the body. You need to be signed in, or this will take you to the login page, but you knew that already, right?

4. Shortcut: Option+space or ctrl+shift+space
    Function: Inserts a non-breaking space

Ever written something like, “$700 billion,” only to find that your word processor has wrapped the text to take ‘billion’ to the next line leaving $700 in full view, turning the Bush-bailout into a personal stimulus package? That’s because you inserted a regular space between ‘$700’ and ‘billion.’

A non-breaking space (also: hard space or fixed space) takes the whole figure ($700 billion) into the next line if necessary, but never separates the two.

For Windows users: Ctrl+shift+space

5. Shortcut: Cmd+1/2/3
    Function: Switches to the 1st/2nd/3rd tab in a browser

If you have a few tabs open in your browser, and need to go to the third one for example, press ‘Cmd + 3’

6. Shortcut: Cmd+space
    Function: Opens spotlight 

Pretty self-explanatory. This command opens the spotlight and allows you find files, preview them (by hovering over the file name in the spotlight search-result and pressing ‘space’) and even do basic mathematical calculations up to logarithms and trigonometry.

7. Shortcut: Cmd+option+c (in MS Word)
    Function: Change case 

This shortcut, when pressed, will cycle through lowercase, uppercase and sentence-case (only first letter in uppercase).

For Windows users: Shift+F3

8. Shortcut: Cmd+shift+4 and Cmd+ctrl+shift+4
    Function: To select part of the screen for a screenshot

Pressing these sets of keys will show crosshairs using which you can select a rectangular part of the screen. If you press ‘ctrl’ the screenshot will be copied to the clipboard. Without Ctrl, the screenshot is saved as a picture file (.png) on your desktop by default. If you want to capture the whole screen though, you’re better off with…

9.  Shortcut: Cmd+shift+3 and Cmd+ctrl+shift+3 
      Function:  Capture the entire screen as a screenshot

Again, pressing ‘ctrl’ will copy the screenshot to the clipboard. Without ‘ctrl’ you’re going to end up with a picture file on your desktop.

10. Shortcut: Cmd+shift+n (In Finder)
      Function: Creates new folder in current Finder folder 

Of course, you can always right-click your mouse/touchpad and choose ‘new folder’ but where’s the fun in that?

So there you have it. Ten shortcuts that are hopefully useful, yet not too common.

Sources: Wikipedia, Apple support, Lifehacker.com

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5 things feminists need to stop saying

We owe feminism for challenging the traditional kinder, küche, kirche role we had delineated for women. As more women went to work, the feminist movement helped make the workplace safer and work schedules flexible: changes that helped men too, says Warren Farrell in The Myth of Male Power. Working women commanded more respect from their husbands and children. Most women in the developed world know and exercise their rights. Efforts are being made to reduce the suffering of women in developing countries.

But feminism in the developed world is running out of dragons to slay. While Rush Limbaugh’s comment on Sandra Fluke was unfortunate and classless, the outrage it provoked and the attention it received suggest that there are few outright gender-discriminatory injustices in the Western world. Devoid of real enemies, feminist zeal and passion are becoming tools for social engineering. Truth has become subservient to the collective female emotion, which, like all forms of collectivism, is set by those who represent it. Even if most women identify as feminists, at least some women are victimized by feminism. Feminist arguments have been used to oppose prostitution and pornography even on occasions where the women were willing. Feminism has taken an ugly turn. Now it is sexist to suggest anything that might displease a woman. We are all supposed to shut up and nod along or get relegated to the doghouse. Whatever women say, say yes or you are a sexist. If you’re eloquent about it, you’re a misogynist. Fine. We surrender. But it’s time to retire some statements –

1. If women ran the world, it would be more peaceful

At the 2007 Emmy awards, Sally Field said, “If mothers ruled the world, there wouldn’t be any goddamned wars in the first place,” to tumultuous applause. Sally Field is just one person, but I’ve heard other women say this. Wendy Schiller, a Brown University professor, said on Real Time With Bill Maher that women are get-together-to-solve-problems kind of people, and hence appointing more women-leaders will make things better. (She has not read this or this. Here is the original research article.) The audience responded with a big female cheer. When Andrew Sullivan tried to argue, she silenced him with petty rhetoric. Shouldn’t any particular woman feel insulted when characterized solely as a group-member, no matter how superficially positive the characterization?

And let’s not forget that history is replete with violent female leaders. Queen Mary Tudor is called Bloody Mary because she burned over 300 Protestants at the stake for heresy. Queen Elizabeth I massacred Ireland. Indira Gandhi had operation Blue Star and imposed the national emergency during which she ruled by decree. Golda Meir had operation Wrath of God. Hillary Clinton’s vote for the Iraq war shows that she is pro-violence at least some of the time. Margaret Thatcher had the Falklands War. These records are among the bloodiest. And by the way, these women sent men to their deaths.

The lady’s not for turning … the other cheek (Wikipedia)

Good politicians need to be ruthless. They need to make tough decisions. These qualities were attributed to men. The political process simply selects for such personalities, male or female. So if only women ran the world, it would be the same. Women are capable of injustice as well. Remember Lynndie England at Abu Ghraib?

United States Army photo from Abu Ghraib priso...

Such a sweetheart (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a bonus, here’s a bunch of women laughing about a man getting his penis chopped off and thrown into the garbage disposal. His crime: asking his wife for a divorce. One woman who notes the blatant sexism is quieted with more jokes. I am for all kinds of humor, and free speech above all; but can you imagine the outrage if the roles were reversed?

2. Government must ensure women earn as much as men

Sounds great right? Who except the purest, most-distilled sack of chauvinistic excrement would disagree with this? For every dollar a man earns, a woman earns 66 cents. Surely something has to be done to fix this injustice. It would solidify women’s presence at the workplace, and cement their rights, right?

Only if you’re unaware that over 95% of the people in the professions with chronic and acute health risks are men. Firefighting, pest-control, construction and other such jobs have over 95% men. Because these jobs are harder and carry higher risk of death and almost a certainty of injury, it’s hard to find people willing to do them. So we need to offer higher salaries. On the flip side, women represent over 95% of dental hygienists, secretaries, speech pathologists, preschool and kindergarten teachers etc. (2010 census report here.) Nobody denies that these jobs have challenges, but they are a lot safer and much less grueling. Men work more hourscommute farther, and do not get pregnant. As sexist as that last one sounds, an employee going on maternity leave is a cost, and employers consider it while negotiating salaries.

I’m sure some employers believe that women aren’t as good as men, and therefore pay women less. But governmental action isn’t going to change them. These prejudiced employers will stop hiring women if they are forced to pay them as much as men, as Milton Friedman explains. Without the government forcing hands, a sexist employer is forced to pay a cost of the higher wage when he arbitrarily chooses a man over a woman. His prejudice costs him. If for whatever reason, a woman is less preferable for a job, the best bargaining power she has is the offer to work for less. Feminism aims to reduce this power thus screwing the pooch for female employees.

Also, one of the best ways to get a raise is to ask for one. Fewer women than men have families dependent primarily on their income. Consequently, a man is more motivated to demand a raise or else because there is a direct correlation between his raise and the improvement in his family’s standard of living. Another instance of this differential earning pressure on men and women is the evidence that self-employed women make less than self-employed men do, probably because they choose other comforts in life that are incongruous with a large profit, according to a 2001 study by Rochester Institute of Technology.

3. Women are smarter because they don’t hump everything they can

This popular refrain seems anecdotally true. Most women could go outside and suggest sex, and guys would line up to oblige. Hence we assume that men are slaves to their primal nature and that women are cerebral and ethereal beings who cannot be distracted from their goals. The most sophisticated of men, on the other hand, turn into blithering idiots by a glimpse of cleavage.

That conclusion is premature. In our society, sex for sex’s sake has consequences. People who get a lot of action are often assumed to have some moral deficit or a self-esteem deficiency for which they overcompensate with promiscuity. So people weigh the risk of getting labeled against the benefit of a dalliance.

When guaranteed a good sexual experience, women are as promiscuous as men, says Terri Conley at the University of Michigan. Of course, this guarantee is often more easily available to men. Most men can gauge with one look whether a woman will please them in bed. A quick head-to-toe scan isn’t enough for women. Given the social price of sex, the high cost-to-benefit ratio for women makes them more discerning. There goes that female philosophical high-ground, which brings us to…

4. Women are more spiritually evolved than men

This is classic question-begging. First, few people can define spiritual evolution, and they are all meditating under Himalayan icicles not to be disturbed. If we can’t even agree on a definition, how can we go about laying men and women on a continuum of spirituality. But some feminists love spouting this party line. Men are impulsive, women are thoughtful. Men are stupid, women are smart. Isn’t this what we see on TV? From Everybody Loves Raymond to Scrubs and even How I Met Your Mother, the woman in the relationship is a genius who swoops in and solves the problem while the husband is busy screwing up. (You gotta love Everybody Loves Raymond. They showed nine seasons of a housewife who never kept a clean home, couldn’t cook to save her life, but yelled at her husband for not contributing.) But it makes sense why TV shows are like that. Women watch more TV than men in any time slot. Women also shop more than men do. No sponsor would want to mess with that. Women need to see this for what it is: a ruse to make them swipe that credit card. As Bill Maher asks, “If women are more evolved, why are they so impressed by shiny objects?”

I’m trying to imagine the mixed emotions of an evangelical feminist about this pic.

Side note – No present species or sex is more evolved than any other. Humans of today are no more evolved than the chimpanzees of today. Humans and chimps  simply have common ancestors. Read The Greatest Show On Earth by Richard Dawkins for more information. (Side side note – I don’t support Professor Dawkins’ condescending reply to Rebecca Watson regarding Elevatorgate. However, the ad hominem attacks on Dawkins for expressing an opinion were disturbing. Tracy Clark-Flory of Salon.com called him a dick: sexist lingo, which apparently women are allowed to use, you know, when the guy deserves it.)

5. You can’t say that because it’s offensive to women

My favorite argument. Anything that offends women is now off the table. When Larry Summers was President of Harvard, he asked if the poor representation of women in science could be due to inherent differences in aptitude between men and women. To be clear, this was one of his theories. He was booed off the academic stage followed by crucifixion in the press, which ended only with his resignation. Such sentiment is rife in colleges today. Suggest an idea a woman might find repugnant, and you’re a chauvinistic pig.

German designer Karl Lagerfeld was given the collective middle finger for calling singer Adele ‘a little too fat’. What he said was, “The thing at the moment is Adele. She is a little too fat, but she has a beautiful face and a divine voice.” I’m probably standing too far, because this looks like a compliment. (They make it sound like he camped outside her house with Atkins pamphlets.) Adele responded that she was happy with the way she looked and how she represented most women. She has since hired a trainer to help her get healthier, according to a source of the Daily Mail.

A few years ago, conservative talk-show host Dennis Prager was accused of endorsing marital rape. I immediately pictured a grinning Prager motivating a large congregation of rapist husbands lauding their tireless pursuits and egging them on while lecturing on combinations of physical force and emotional blackmail simmered to perfection.

Tomorrow: alibi practice and crime-scene cleanup.

His article (Part I and part II) was about how sometimes for the health of a marriage, a woman should consider having sex with her husband even if she’s not ‘in the mood’. Prager also argues that we rarely leave other important things in life (going to work, taking kids to school etc.) at the mercy of our moods. I don’t agree with everything he said in the article, but he never endorsed any form of force. The feminist argument assumes that women are animals who have sex when and only when their monkey-brains tell them to, and a woman having sex for any reason other than raw desire is being raped. If that’s true, all prostitutes are rape-victims. Shouldn’t it be anti-feminist not to distinguish a woman’s free will from her feral instinct? Yet, feminists were happy to take this position and over-simplify women. Prager simply suggested that women make a conscious decision to have sex in spite of their mood. He respected a woman’s volition more than his critics did. Men are constantly told to cuddle and hold their partner after sex, buy flowers, give back-rubs, foot-massages and the like, in spite of their moods or lack of them. But they comply for the health of the marriage. And they should. Being aware of one’s desire and going against it for a good reason is a sign of maturity. Women cannot expect equal treatment (neither can men) and demand qualified speech. That is injustice.

Finally, the adversarial interaction between feminists, masculists and those in between keeps everyone in check. (I ignore the squiggly Microsoft Word uses to nudge me to reconsider ‘masculists.‘) Stifling opinions for their apparent repugnance only drives prejudice and bias underneath. Say whatever you want, but when contrary evidence is presented, evaluate it, and change your opinion if necessary. Stop being loyal to a fault.

GOP race to the bottom

And then they were four

So what by Miles Davis serenades me while writing about the Republican primaries. It’s always fun to watch presidential candidates coddle their bases during primaries by extolling the magnitude of their orientation, only to reach the general election and water down everything they said merely months ago, their chests still smarting from self-righteous thumping.

Mitt Romney needed to cruise through the primaries without any extreme right wing proclamations to take on Obama in November. He probably didn’t realize that the Republican base would sooner endorse a welfare-using pot-smoking mother-of-six than the ex-Governor, whose capacity for emotion would make a sociopath sit up and take notes. And they haven’t even played the Mormon card yet. Well, at least we can conclude that magic underwear can barely withstand the triumvirate of one wrinkled heartless crypt-keeper, one Christy senator whose main claim to fame is the guarantee of giggles upon googling his name and one shameless adulterer who was cheating on his wife while lampooning Bill Clinton for the same. The NIH budget is richer by a few thousands that can now go to fund illegal abortions.

Some people need to be sat down and explained to that making abortion legal doesn’t make it mandatory. Only that confusion can explain the outrage on this issue. Also, wide availability of contraception doesn’t mean that the high school lunch lady will sprinkle crushed Plan B over your daughter’s apple pie.

I think the employer-insurer nexus must go, but while it exists, insurance plans must cover contraception and abortion. An employer whose religious beliefs do not allow these interventions might be skittish about shopping for such a plan, but consider the alternative. Unwanted babies are less cared for and more prone to crime. Steven Levitt suggests that legalized abortion is responsible for half the drop in crime in the 90s. What if a Jehovah’s witness organization claims that forcing it to cover blood transfusions is religious persecution? Christian scientists do not believe in any medical intervention, and that disease is merely God’s will. Where does it end?

Pharmacists who believe that contraception is against their religion shouldn’t be forced to sell them, and at least one judge agrees. People should not be forced to engage in any transaction. No questions asked. This isn’t a matter of religious freedom. It’s freedom. Don’t worry about the supply of contraceptives drying up. There are plenty of sane pharmacists. But I must ask these pharmacists how they reconcile their faith and their professions. The Bible does not weigh in on melanoma or the common cold. It’s not a big leap of faith that some scientific information led to their career choice.

We live in a country where churches have automatic tax-exempt status. (Other religious organizations must file for this status if their gross annual receipts exceed $5000.) Everyone is forced by threat of state-funded violence, to subsidize Christianity in a country whose bill of rights begins with the words Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…etcRepublican politicians love saying that the U.S. Constitution is founded upon Christian principles. If a 4,543 word document is based on ten sentences that would fit on an index card, wouldn’t the founders have mentioned that as a footnote? Maybe they were being paid by the word.

What is exceptionally galling, is that a barely legitimate argument about gay marriage, immigration and abortion has descended to discussion of previously undoubted issues like contraception and mentioning Satan among adults (link to 2008 video).

This election was supposed to be about the economy. But the economy, to the right-wingers’ chagrin, is doing better. Nobody is breaking out the champagne just yet, but we are far from the train-wreck predicted most gleefully by the right. Now that that angle is out of the window, the right has gone back to what it does best: kiss up to Christ and call Obama a pansy on the international stage. Whatever your politics, you won’t be taken seriously if you don’t admit that as far as national security is concerned, this president does better with a scalpel than the previous one did with a sword. He has ridden us of Osama and al-Awlaki with minimal cost.

Mitt Romney cannot come out of this unscathed, and if he gets wounded enough, he won’t pose a real threat to Obama in November. The primaries have shown that Christ one-upmanship can reach ridiculous levels. The Christian death-grip on the right has sapped the traces of political discourse left in this country.

A good morning

It was sunnier than usual. A deceptive sunlight—a photograph of which would have you reach for your shorts and flip-flops with hands made frictionless by extra layers of sunscreen. But it was one that wouldn’t brook liquid water. Sam sighed as he glanced out the large circular window of his tiny square room in the cramped SoHo apartment. He was sharing it with two others, both of whom had demanding jobs, the stress of which they rebelled against by passionate, amorous wrestling. The floor was hardwood, but with the nails holding the boards generously offering their opinions on foot texture.

He opened the refrigerator and reached for the milk that his roommates kept in the door despite his reproaches about temperature fluctuations and bacterial growth. It was, strangely, in the middle shelf, preserved and ready to lighten his morning coffee. Perhaps one of his roommates’ overnight guests had stumbled on to his blog. What did people do before the internet became fast enough to overcome cognitive drift?

His eyelids had just barely surrendered to the sun, and he realized that his nose was a little slow on the uptake as well. The smell of coffee, not unlike their usual Sumatran, but with a little more body, and maybe a hint of cinnamon, hit him no sooner than five minutes after he entered the room. Smiling, he opened the door to pick up the Times. Waking early usually ensured getting a virgin, rubber-banded paper and the faint almost-escaped smell of ink. Today, all he saw was a bare welcome mat. Apparently, the cost of home-brewed coffee was going to be the trouble of reading news with an iPad balanced on four fingertips and the thumb around the center pole on the uptown 6 train.

He stepped out of the shower with red eyes. Somehow, the post-doctoral fellow in charge of knocking out specific proteins in laboratory mice had not mastered the art of closing his eyes before soaping his face. The roll-on deodorant seemed exhausted, but he rubbed it on anyway, vowing for the third time that week that he would buy some on his way home. He unslung his blue denims from the arm of his chair and put them on. A creature of habit, he sucked in his gut and appraised himself in the mirror. Nodding as if to pump up for one of many monotonous days, he got dressed, queued the audiobook version of Atlas Shrugged on his phone and left for work. He needed a new peacoat; this one felt like it was designed for a thinner man.