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Tuesday, 25 November 2008

The Land of High Metaphor

Plain-language poems are easiest. Say it honestly, say it in verse, say it without obvious contrivances of rhyme or style and you've done well. But once you enter metaphor-land, well, it's a bit like pulp science fiction. Anything is possible, but not everything is advisable. "You have eyes like vampire fangs," I once wrote of a man. It was true, but a bit lurid, and the poem it was part of had every pitfall of free verse, from ramblingness to, yes, metaphors shoved in purely for the purpose of reminding you that this is a poem rather than just some stuff I felt like getting off my chest.

In improv there's this idea known as the absurdity curve. Those new to improv -- the brave sort, rather than the ones who start off hiding in a corner -- occasionally enter a scene and jump straight off the wall:

"Hello, Jess."

"Hello, Joe. Here, help me move this crate."


"Oh, no! An octopus just fell on my head!"

Now don't get me wrong, this can be a great way to approach improv when you're new to it. Just jump out there and say whatever and don't be afraid to look silly. However, as you get slightly better at it, it's as well to develop a little more finesse. The idea of a 'rising absurdity curve' is that you start a scene with the small and ordinary. If you do introduce anything remarkable at the beginning, you take the time to establish it. But sudden dramatic events do not happen until later in the scene, as you reach the climax, at which point elements of the story that seemed normal earlier can and do blossom into full-blown absurdities.

Poetry doesn't have a set 'curve' of the sort that improvisers are taught to consider. Nonetheless, the effectiveness of a vivid metaphor really does depend on context. A poem might go with the improv curve, starting with the ordinary and deepening into metaphor as it draws you in. If you do start with a strong metaphor, you might need to broaden and establish it to make it seem at home. And, as I said at the beginning, sometimes you'd do just as well to leave the metaphors out altogether.

So anyway, I'm fiddling with a memory that I'd love to put into poetry. I write

I never saw a man so golden
as you were, lying by my side.

It's a shoddy approximation of what I felt, but the tone is right. I can't really go anywhere with it, though. I'm writing about something I don't understand. I don't have enough angles. Reluctantly, I give up on describing the exact feeling and decide perhaps I'll just put a little of that in a poem that includes some other stuff.

Late one night, when I'm supposed to be going to sleep, I hammer out a couple of lines that capture so much more of it.

The dawn that rose when I awoke tonight
was only in the halo of your hair.

I can't abandon those lines. They work. It's just that they set a level of metaphor that's going to be jolly hard to keep up with sensibly. This isn't going to be a plain-language poem. Look out, darlin', you're in the Land of High Metaphor. Whatcha gonna do to continue that? Bring out the octopi?

I've started in High Metaphor and now I need substance. Lots and lots of substance, because metaphor, if done well, can eat up substance like nothing else. It's a powerful and dense way of expressing things. One of the reasons I'm finding this so hard to write is that I'm expressing something remarkable that I haven't felt before. It's in the 'Whisky Tango Foxtrot' subgenre of love poetry. However, there have been several times in my life when I've felt something remarkable that I haven't felt before, so I have a better handle on that part of it than on the feeling itself. That helps. I might be able to use that in the poem, but, of course, this now means I'm negotiating two dangers. On the one hand we have Scylla the octopus. On the other hand we have Charybdis, the never ending whirlpool which consists of saying things in a poem like "I don't know how to say it" or "words cannot express this". If words can't express it, why are you trying, dude? Give up and start writing drippy pop songs instead.

It's been a few months, now, but so far I've been able to build this:

The dawn was rising when I woke, tonight,
but only in the halo of your hair,
and I, bemused, perceiving by its light
a whole horizon waiting for me there,
say nothing. I am waiting for a phrase
to catch some faithful gleam inside the haze.

If I could always have a minute more
to stay within the compass of your hand,
then by your touch and mine I could explore
the whole of you and I, and understand
the half-remembered dreams that shimmer through
this little world that takes its light from you.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Jumping the Broom

In marriage, let communion of the mind
meet with your bodies on the earthy ground,
and as the ordinary days unwind,
embrace the roses where they may be found.
Together, let your understanding grow.
Have patience when you think you've grown apart.
I revel in the joy and love you show,
and give you my support with all my heart.
By lies and lucre, in a narrow race,
today we lost a battle in this land,
and you may think your love must hide its face.
Well, let me speak for those who understand.
For better, for worse, whatever may arise,
have hope. Lovers, be married in our eyes.

Grad Student Election Night

Slightly altered excerpt from my most recent email home:

There were two tubes of paint: one red, one blue. The rule was, generally, that you couldn't paint the state on the map until CNN had called it. Occasionally, polls would close all at once and CNN would call several as soon as they closed -- I guess when their exit polling made them sure. Illinois, for instance, turned blue immediately. By contrast, North Carolina stayed yellow on the screen and white on our map for as long as I was there.

The plan was that we would start watching Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart on Comedy Central at 7pm. Perhaps that might have worked in previous years, when the outcome took forever, but I left to go make myself some dinner before it started, and when I got back the room was full of people and the grudging consensus seemed to be that it was better to be watching CNN. If nothing else, the information on CNN was visible despite the noise in there, but the election jokes on Comedy Central weren't. Besides, things were moving fast. Obama had more than two hundred electoral college votes. People were sharing their voting stories: when they voted, how long the lines were. The polls in California closed at 8pm, our time. CNN was counting down, and we counted down with it: "Ten! Nine! Eight! Seven! Six! Five! Four! Three! . . ." CNN's screen suddenly whirled away from the countdown ". . . Two! One!" we shouted, and the room bubbled with applause and cheers, as CNN, having called California immediately, called the race for Obama, and someone stepped up to the map to paint California blue.

It was about then that the pizza arrived. Nobody was leaving yet. You could see a slight smugness on people's faces whenever we switched over to Fox News while CNN had advertisements.

We had a respectful silence for McCain's concession speech. There were nods and occasional slight applause. The only flicker of tension was after he had finished, as Sarah Palin walked past the microphone. "Don't let her speak!" someone yelled. She didn't.

Then we waited. The crowds in Chicago were going wild for I don't know how long as we chatted and wondered how Obama's speech would go. What's he like, now that he's won? We had silence again for the President Elect, but it wasn't the same silence. There was an edge of resistance. This speaker had newfound authority. We listened critically. We had a few smiles and applause through the thanks, especially as Obama's campaign manager was mentioned, and patient silence as Obama said that those who thought real change could never come were now proved wrong.

Then Obama's speech got Presidential, honest about the challenges as he asked for the support of the whole nation and pulled his central campaign message of hope into a faith that America would get through the financial crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He stepped boldly into the leadership vacuum and we listened. We listened without noticing or caring how we were listening until Obama got into the recitation of what one century-old woman had seen through her life, and the challenges she and the country had faced in that time. By the third 'Yes we can", some guy over to the right was repeating it back with a parodic edge: "yes-we-CAN!" Obama was losing us; we were still mostly quiet, but we shifted a bit, until Obama mentioned how science had connected the whole world, and someone at the back yelled "Science!" and we all grinned.

Yeah, we'll be there, Mr. President Elect. Just don't ask us to recite slogans.

Over and out.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008


Imagination suffers, being free.
The real world gets more curious with time.
So play with method. Study how you see,
and by a prism
unweave the rainbow

and do not fear to write in red on lime,
but if the colour scatters carelessly
then look for method, metre, even rhyme,
and by a prison
shape a poem.

Yes, this is rainbow--poem, take 2.

[Edit: I've edited the title, because, staring at it after it was up, I realised that my original title of 'Humanism' mostly just fogged things up by linking it to a whole slew of ideas that were only partially related. Atheism has a much sharper denotation.

I don't know what it is about this poem that makes me so impulsive in posting it.]

Saturday, 25 October 2008

If you tag people, people tag back . . .

. . . which is why I'm now doing this atheist meme, courtesy of Susan over at Intrinsically Knotted.

Can you remember the day that you officially became an atheist?

Nope! If I'd wanted to stop being an atheist, that would have required an official change.

Do you remember the day you officially became an agnostic?

I remember being quite taken by the notion of agnosticism when I was eleven years old or so. I knew the term referred to God-belief but frankly, I was going through an ultra-skeptical phase and I wanted to be agnostic about the existence of everything besides myself. You see, my mother explained to me about Descartes when I was ten, and whilst Descartes' argument about the existence of God never seemed very sensible to me, I did go through a stage where the fact that it was possible to doubt almost everything was just fascinating.

How about the last time you spoke or prayed to God with actual thought that someone was listening?

I've never prayed with the belief that someone was listening. On the other hand, eight years old is the earliest time that I can remember others' belief in God bothering me, and one of the things that bothered me was the whole "if you don't believe you'll go to hell" line. I'm very sensitive to disapproval from authority, and even an imaginary authority who disapproved of me badly enough to condemn me to the worst punishment anyone could dream up was a really painful thought. So around that time I prayed quite a lot of "Dear God, if you exist, I'm really sorry I don't believe in you but I care about what's actually true and I'm honestly not doing this out of malice or anything . . ."

The last time I prayed in that sense was three years ago when I was twenty. That story is here and I don't really want to go over it again.

Did anger towards God or religion help cause you to be an atheist or agnostic?

Well, no, because I've pretty much always been one! Critical thinking, a love of the truth, and the simple fact that my parents didn't believe were the major factors, not necessarily in that order.

Getting angry with God for being so unreasonable as to dole out infinite punishments for finite crimes never helped me much in the whole internal "Gosh, there's an imaginary authority who really, really disapproves of me" debate, either. That debate stopped once I had been through the mill on that issue -- once I knew that I had been in a situation where I had a strong reason for wanting to believe. It was much less credible after that for me to worry that I was just disbelieving because I didn't want to change my worldview.

Here is a good one: Were you agnostic towards ghosts, even after you became an atheist?

I read a book about skeptics when I was quite young. I thought skeptics were awesome, running around finding the truth behind the lies. The notion that there were people for whom 'skeptic' was a doubtful classification implying an unwillingness to believe the truth never occurred to me. Mind you, the first person I heard saying 'skeptic' in a tone of voice that implied that it was something bad was 'psychic' Sylvia Brown, and she's got a mercenary reason to make that implication!

I never believed in ghosts.

Do you want to be wrong?

Very much not.

Okay, this time I tag John Evo, Maria, and Eshu. If you feel like doing a meme, go ahead and pick this one up.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Meme: Five ways blogging changed my life.

This meme was begun by L. L. Barkat. The rules are as follows:

1. Write about 5 specific ways blogging has affected you, either positively or negatively.
2. link back to the person who tagged you
3. link back to this parent post (LL says she's "not so much interested in generating links, but rather in tracking the meme so I can perhaps do a summary post later on that looks at patterns and interesting discoveries.")
4. tag a few friends or five, or none at all
5. post these rules— or just have fun breaking them

LL didn't originally tag me for this meme, but she asked me to take part after remarking in a comment on this blog that she "created the report after reading a truckload of blogs and today realized the responding group was rather homogenous (read Christian)." Broadening the sample? I approve! Here goes, then.

I don't know that blogging has actually changed my life dramatically. Blogging has reflected my life. Important parts of my development have drawn on blogging to help them along. But, at least with some of them, if I didn't have a blog, I'd have drawn on other things. Here, then, are a few small ways that blogging has changed me:

1. I have -- or at least had -- an alter ego. 'Lynet' was created to play with ideas that I didn't yet wish to include, or didn't yet feel capable of including, in my usual self. Where I was still playing by the 'rules' as laid down by my childhood, Lynet was able to go out and play at being more separate from her parents, more (I think) rambling and indeed unsure of her opinions, and less afraid that having a sexuality would automatically degrade her. Lynet was nice. I liked her. She's still here, it's just that around the time I wrote Penelope we sort of merged.

2. I have a small audience for my poetry. I think I would have written poetry in any case, and my foray into rhyme and metre and other strict forms was begun before I started blogging, but having an audience certainly does change the way I write. Thinking about whether I would post it changes my standard for whether a poem (or a draft of it) can be said to be 'finished'.

3. Even before I came to America, I knew a heck of a lot more about American politics than any outsider has reason to know! Actually that's not quite true. America affects all of us, so it's not like the information isn't interesting. Still, the blogosphere is skewed towards America, and my political knowledge has been skewed accordingly.

4. I've got a perpetual source of reading material. This also means I've got a perpetual source of procrastinatory material, of course. For example, I'm writing this late at night when I should be in bed and I have an assignment due tomorrow :-).

5. I've come to feel like my atheism is worthy of at least the same respect and courtesy that I would afford to a religion. I had sort of internalised the idea that atheists ought to keep their heads down for fear of offending people. These days, I still wouldn't go out to offend, but I find that simple honesty about my beliefs ought not to be offensive in the first place. That's a deep change with just a few subtle effects. For example, I wouldn't feel the need to be apologetic about not joining in when people say grace. And yes, Ebon Musings deserves most of the credit.

I tag, with no obligation:

C. L. Hanson
Ordinary Girl
The Chaplain

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Attack Highlights the Best of Atheist Blogging

Now is not a good time to be a Republican politician. Way back in August, Republican Senator Elizabeth Dole found that defending her seat against Democratic challenger Kay Hagan might not be as easy as she thought. One of her ways of fighting back was to demonise Hagan for meeting with atheists and taking donations from them. The press release from her campaign said:

On September 15th, Kay Hagan is heading to Boston, Massachusetts to attend a fundraiser for her Senate campaign. What may surprise mainstream North Carolinians is that the fundraiser will be in the home of leading anti religion activists Wendy Kaminer and her lawyer husband Woody Kaplan -- who is an advisor to the "Godless Americans Political Action Committee."

. . .

"Kay Hagan is trying to run a campaign in North Carolina that casts her as a moderate but the money that's paying for it is coming from the left-wing fringe of political thought," said Dole Campaign Communications Director Dan McLagan. "You can tell a lot about a person by their friends and these are friends most North Carolinians would not be comfortable having over for dinner."

Got that? Atheists are people "most North Carolinians would not be comfortable having over for dinner." Note also that the Dole campaign's description of the Kaminers' activities suggests to me that the Kaminers are activists for church-state separation and for the civil rights of atheists rather than "anti religion activists" as labeled by the Dole campaign.

At the time, atheists in the blogosphere seized the opportunity to show support for the acceptability of atheist voices in the political process by donating to Hagan's campaign (see, for example, here) and writing to Elizabeth Dole to explain why.

For a variety of reasons, I'm sure, Hagan has now shifted ahead of Dole in the polls. The Dole campaign is fighting back -- and they haven't given up on the atheist connection! A recent mailout from the Dole Campaign, displayed on the blog of an understandably angry North Carolinian atheist blogger, attacks Hagan yet again for daring to accept support from atheists. The mailout includes two quotes from the atheist blogosphere. Fairly innocuous quotes, at that. One is from a comment on Friendly Atheist, and reads:

I don’t know that I’ve ever been to North Carolina besides driving through, but I just donated [to Hagan's campaign].

The other is from a post on Daylight Atheism:

Kay Hagan ought to be rewarded for inviting nonbelievers onto her platform . . .

I'm startled that the Dole campaign thinks this is a good move. Only voters with a truly overt prejudice against atheists are likely to find a website name like "" threatening.

Whether or not Dole has helped her own campaign, she has certainly helped the atheist movement! She's promoting the atheist blogosphere at its best. Any North Carolinian who follows the attribution of those quotes will be led, not to some scary den of atheist supremacy, but to the open-minded affability of Friendly Atheist and the even-tempered eloquence of Daylight Atheism. American atheists couldn't choose a better pair of blogs to represent their cause.

[By the way, here are the respective reactions to this news on Daylight Atheism and Friendly Atheist].

Thursday, 2 October 2008

This wasn't what I wanted

I was worried by Paulson's initial bailout plan. Only three pages? No oversight? $700 billion?

Worse, Paulson didn't seem sure he knew what to do with the money. When Lehman Brothers went under and things suddenly got dramatic, well, quite frankly, it looked like nobody had any idea what to do (Certainly not John McCain or Barack Obama, and, unsurprisingly, not the current President either). It was as if Paulson had stepped into the vacuum and said, well, since we're not sure what to do about it, how about we throw lots of money at it and hope it works?

So I hoped that additions would be made to the plan. I was glad there was questioning and opposition. I hoped somebody would come up with some more specific suggestions!

What I was not hoping for was this. Now, I'm glad that the bill that passed the Senate includes more oversight. I approve of giving the money in installments. But I'm deeply disappointed that the critical eye of many Senate members, even at a time like this, seems to be mostly on the lookout for irrelevant but costly concessions.

I'm not even sure I approve of the suggestion that we help out "Main Street" by bailing out the small people who owe on their mortgages as well as the big companies. Not if it costs more money. I don't want to see lots of random spending. I don't necessarily want that spending to be based on who is more deserving. I want to see 'bailout' money used as wisely as possible. If this article is to be believed, the approach currently outlined is well short of shrewd.

There's a real, scary problem here that needs solving. Slacktivist points out this incredibly informative piece from NPR and This American Life detailing the problems faced by small businesses and areas of the market which had nothing to do with sub-prime mortgages. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with those areas of the economy, it's just that they need day-to-day credit to survive. They pay off that credit, and quickly. We're not looking at dodgy loans here. But the whole credit market is in danger of freezing because loans that looked secure before -- mixed packages of mortgages -- have been shown to be stupidly risky, so nobody really feels like lending money to anyone right now.

I am not an economist (IANAE). Still, here's a thought. What if, instead of trying to bail out the purveyors and packagers of dodgy mortgages and hoping that this will make everyone forget what happened, the government were to focus on finding a way to secure the rest of the market? Protect the innocent, so to speak. IANAE, and I've got no clear idea of what we could do with any amount of money, but what could we do with $700 billion focused directly at the problem of availability of credit in general? For example, could we find a direct way to make the commercial paper market more secure? After all, I get the impression (with many repetitions of IANAE) that it's not that insecure to begin with, it just feels that way. I would have thought propping up a system that is still mostly sound but with a lot of uncertainty might be easier than mopping up a system that is fundamentally unsound. What if the government proposed temporary insurance on certain kinds of lending that probably won't fail, just for a few months until the crisis eases?

IANAE. Is bailing out banks and investors the only way to make credit available out there, or is there another way?

Monday, 22 September 2008

rainbow -- poem

When everything we see is bland and white
with platitudinous false prophecy
then look for method, study even light,
and by a prism
unweave the rainbow,

and do not fear to write in red on lime,
but if the colour scatters carelessly
then look for method, metre, even rhyme,
and by a prison
unlock a poem.

I should leave this for a day or two to see if I want to change it, but I can't resist showing it off. I've been trying to write the above as a blog post for ages, but there were too many interlinked ideas to be able to fit them all into a linear prose structure. Additionally, I've been thinking for ages that I should write a poem about atheism, but I kept finding that I didn't have any really good ideas. I suppose I ought to thank Maria for this post at Chromium Oxide Green, which made me realise that not having any good ideas for a poem about reality is kind of silly.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008


1. I've arrived in California and am too busy to post at the moment. Sorry.

2. If you want to read other people's posts, the latest Humanist Symposium is up at Freethought Fort Wayne.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

The Sea-Child

I'm too distracted for a proper post, sorry. Here's a poem -- not one of mine!

Into the world you sent her, mother,
Fashioned her body of coral and foam,
Combed a wave in her hair's warm smother,
And drove her away from home

In the dark of the night she crept to the town
And under a doorway she laid her down,
The little blue child in the foam-fringed gown.

And never a sister and never a brother
To hear her call, to answer her cry.
Her face shone out from her hair's warm smother
Like a moonkin up in the sky.

She sold her corals; she sold her foam;
Her rainbow heart like a singing shell
Broke in her body: she crept back home.

Peace, go back to the world, my daughter,
Daughter, go back to the darkling land;
There is nothing here but sad sea water,
And a handful of sifting sand.

We sang a rather lovely arrangement of that when I was in high school. It's by Katherine Mansfield, better known for her short stories. She was, and I will be, in a week, an expat Kiwi.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Plain Language

I fear that the embrace we shared back then
has lost its meaning in your mind today.
It's waiting for some other moment when
we're once again together. When I play
with memories in verse, do I disturb
the balance of our delicate regard?
Relationships are precious, and to curb
my muse is only wise. It's not so hard.
But, ah, the things you've given me! They sing,
seductive as the call of distant lands.
My fingers, clumsy with such substance, bring
no talent, but I shuffle with the strands
of silken colour, soft and light as air,
and beg forgiveness for my lingering care.

Friday, 29 August 2008


L. L. Barkat doesn't usually post about political happenings. She's more interested in personal growth and morality and how to live well; in spirituality, I guess I may freely say, since LL is a Christian blogger.

"I don't claim to understand it." In a recent post on Senator John Edwards' recently-revealed affair, LL quotes this response and then looks more deeply at the matter at hand. Do we really not understand how an illicit love affair could start? LL is willing to try, and I say brava!

"I don't claim to understand it" is the easiest response to an action or a viewpoint that you disagree with. It stops you from having to confront your own fallibility. To 'understand' in this sense is to identify the impulses that you, too, have which could in other circumstances prompt you to act that way. Claiming not to understand how someone could, say, have an extramarital affair is a way of claiming that you are innocent of all such deplorable impulses.

Having established that whatever prompted this action could not have been anything that you feel leaves you free to make the imagined motives as unpleasant as you like. LL herself notes that the picture she can imagine "is a radically different frame than that of the 'lurid affair' that the media loves to paint". Yes, it is. Similarly, the motivations of most atheists are radically different to the picture sometimes painted by apologists of people who simply don't want to obey God, being an anti-abortion activist doesn't actually mean that you hate women, and some "family" activists really need to learn that the sexual feelings of homosexuals do not consist entirely of 'lurid affairs' either.

Atheists are as guilty as anyone of painting an unrealistic picture of their opponents. I wince, sometimes, at the swiftness with which certain sections of the online atheist community will give up the attempt to explain religion in terms of anything that we feel and instead impute it to stupidity and smallmindedness, to greed and fear. Stupidity, smallmindedness, greed and fear are real phenomena, it's true, but if you choose to see those motives at the expense of others, you are showing a smallmindedness of your own.

The truth is, there are reasons to show compassion to others that even extend beyond the way it can help us to get along. If you truly want to understand the world, and if you truly want to understand yourself, then showing humility about your own motives and compassion about the motives of others is the only way to reach a semblance of truth.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Physics and Poetry

Yes, it's another Nonbelieving Literati post [Edit: This one's about Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino. How could I forget to say that?] . I'm late again, but, as I posted on the Exterminator's contribution, this one did sort of look like one that I should make the effort on. John Evo, responding to the comment, was kind enough to characterise me as a poet, specifically by saying "I'd definitely like to hear what a poet has to say about this". But did I read this book as a poet?

I started out reading as a physicist. What can I say? When I was younger I used to love the slide and switch of reference frames, the pure and perfect mechanics of Galileo, Newton, Einstein. The characters' names in this book even sort of look like arcane mathematical expressions with symbols incomprehensibly juxtaposed: Qfwfq, (k)yK, Mrs. Ph(i)Nko. So when I read Qfwfq babbling away like an old man about how the Moon used to be closer to the Earth in those days, I started mentally checking the details. "She rolled around the sky like an umbrella chased by the wind". Well, the Moon would have to go fast. To be in orbit is to cross the horizon before you can fall to the ground. If the ground is closer, the Moon must reach the horizon more quickly! Indeed, the necessary speed bothered me a little.

This is how we did the job: in the boat we had a ladder: one of us held it, another climbed to the top, and a third, at the oars, rowed until we were right under the Moon . . .

What's wrong with this picture? I kept finding myself imagining the Moon falling until I realised that, at the distance I was imagining it, the Moon would probably have to be travelling a lot faster than the average rowboat. Ah, but isn't it fun to imagine that you could climb to the Moon on a ladder? Poetic license. Never mind.

Yes, the Moon was so strong that she pulled you up; you realised this the moment you passed from one to the other: you had to swing up abruptly, with a kind of somersault, grabbing the scales, throwin your legs over your head, until your feet were on the Moon's surface. Seen from the Earth, you looked as if you were hanging there with your head down, but for you, it was the normal position, and the only odd thing was that when you raised your eyes you saw the sea above you, glistening, with the boat and the others upside down, hanging like a bunch of grapes from the vine.

I was skeptical of this one at first. It is, however, true that the closer you get to the Moon, the stronger the Moon's pull. The question is, how close do you have to be? If the Moon is that close to the Earth, might not the point at which the Moon's attraction becomes stronger actually be inside the Moon?

A quick calculation informs me that I was wrong, however. As the distance between the Earth and the Moon increases, the point of equal gravitational pull becomes outside the Moon before the distance becomes greater than the Earth's radius! So that's all good.

"Cling together! Idiots! Cling together!" the Captain yelled. At this command, the sailors tried to form a group, a mass, to push all together until they reached the zone of the Earth's attraction: all of a sudden a cascade of bodies plunged into the sea with a loud splash.

Okay, this is not poetic licence. It's not my fault for being picky either. This isn't something I could fail to notice. It's blatantly wrong. In fact, there's a nice thought experiment due to Galileo that tries to disprove the above using basically that example. You see, bigger things do not fall faster than smaller ones. Not unless the smaller one is a feather, in which case the key phrase is air resistance. Without air resistance, all objects would fall at the same speed. With air resistance, well, the air resistance does not have to be as big in order to affect the fall of a small thing as it would need to be in order to affect the fall of a large thing. This is what creates the disparity. However, I can assure you that tying the lace of one shoe to the lace of the other will not make your shoes fall faster; it affects neither the air resistance nor the gravitational pull on each shoe. Similarly, coming together in a group will not make each person fall faster. Gravity does not check whether you are holding hands before deciding how hard to pull each of you!

Thus began an uneasy balance between science and poetry. The delight of these stories is in the way that they take a snippet of science and build around it an absurd flight of fancy, an almost narcissistic reflection of human foibles created around a simple detached fact. Moreover, although the science may sometimes be bent or broken, the humanity never is. Who cannot sympathise with the narrator of 'The Light Years', suddenly realising that the inhabitants of other galaxies have been watching him and worrying desperately about what they must think of him, but knowing that they are so distant that they will not see any improvement he makes to his behaviour for millions of years?

As with all stories that have an allegorical component, there is always a temptation to try to find the more commonplace 'meaning' behind the fantastical description. I suspect that, having begun my reading thinking like a scientist, I was slightly more prone to this than I might otherwise have been, and spent a certain amount of time reminding myself not to try to decode. The stories are sympathetic in their own right, and their meaning is in their sympathy. A reader should not need more.

Ah, but I loved the final story! I had settled down into poetry far enough that I could dispense with the science by means of a mere 'of course evolution couldn't really have this sort of purpose' and enjoy the pretty story of how we create beauty -- the beauty of a spiral, no less! How very mathematical. This book is not all true, but it is clearly truthful.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

". . . secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects . . ."

A laptop is among the most personal of objects. Sometimes just having somebody look over my shoulder when I'm on it gives me a not entirely comfortable prickle across my shoulder-blades. It's so terribly revealing: my list of Google contacts, the things I choose to have shortcuts for on my desktop, the fact that I play FreeCell often enough that it's currently got higher listing on my 'start' menu than iTunes -- to say nothing of my list of Firefox bookmarks (that's 'favorites' for all you people still stuck on Internet Explorer), which happens to include a favourite Doctor Who screencap of mine (this one, if you must know) just because I like to look at it occasionally.

So I really want to know why it is that this does not seem to violate any laws (Tip of the hat to Pharyngula):

Federal agents may take a traveler's laptop computer or other electronic device to an off-site location for an unspecified period of time without any suspicion of wrongdoing, as part of border search policies the Department of Homeland Security recently disclosed. . . .

DHS officials said the newly disclosed policies -- which apply to anyone entering the country, including U.S. citizens -- are reasonable and necessary to prevent terrorism. Officials said such procedures have long been in place but were disclosed last month because of public interest in the matter.

You can view the policy here, which does contain partial exceptions for business information and attorney-client privileged material, and which does state that most of the information gathered (unless it relates to a crime) needs to be destroyed afterwards.

Now, I am not silly enough to let Firefox remember the password to my internet bank account, but anyone with access to my laptop could find their way into my email. Theoretically, when I enter the United States next month, immigration officials are allowed to look at every silly story or diary-like ramble in my 'documents' folder.

For some reason it doesn't bother me half so much that they're probably also allowed to read my paper diary if they wish. Electronic information is easily searched, easily copied, easily secreted, easily sent. Sure, you're supposed to destroy it all, but I bet that's unenforceable in practice. So I have to rely on the disinterest of customs officials and anyone else deemed necessary to decode my data. In my case, maybe that's not so bad. I'm not doing anything terribly secret or interesting, don't own any pornographic material of myself that could accidentally find its way onto the internet, and if all else fails, I'm white and I speak English and I bet that counts for more than it should in avoiding being searched in the first place. Travellers shouldn't have to rely on luck like that, though!

The Fourth Amendment, which I quoted in the post title, does not apply with the same force to border searches (see Wikipedia). Although they need reasonable suspicion to search me bodily, currently thay can search me mentally (via my laptop) for any reason or none. Frankly, I think I'd rather be searched bodily.

Although it will be to late to protect me, I hope Russ Feingold's plan to introduce legislation to stop this sort of thing is successful. Squick. Seriously, this is what I call an invasive search!

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

For ---

Here’s fourteen lines on impulse – like the way

we hide beneath your jacket in the rain

and find that, since we have the chance today,

I might as well be kissing you again.

This one’s for friendship; this, for pleasant lust.

This one’s for luck, and this one is for trust.

We tell each other secrets, you and I,

and still can look each other in the eye.

So sit down here beside me on the grass,

and never mind the mud, and take my hand,

and kiss me on the mouth, for time will pass

and things won’t always go the way we planned,

but sometimes we find serendipity ­–

I hope, for now, you find it here with me.

(You are reading this, aren't you? Hope you don't mind.)

Monday, 7 July 2008


Our last book but one for the Nonbelieving Literati was A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf. Having read that and rather liked it, I pulled Orlando off the library shelves a while back, took it into a cafe and began to read.

I loved it, I swooned over it, I laughed with delight. It's one of my favourite books ever, I think, particularly the first half, where the title character is male. Orlando is known, among other things, for the unabashed lesbianism in the second half. That's all very well, and I appreciated it for the ground-breaking daring that it was, but to me, it was passages like this that really stood out:

The King was walking in Whitehall. Nell Gwyn was on his arm. She was pelting him with hazel nuts. ‘Twas a thousand pities, that amorous lady sighed, that such a pair of legs should leave the country.

Howbeit, the Fates were hard; she could do no more than toss one kiss over her shoulder before Orlando sailed.

Now, really! Oh, some may say that Orlando's legs may only be sighed over because he is somehow androgynous. Some may call the fact that Orlando is an object of desire a mere foreshadowing of his eventual femininity. Not I.

There is no denying it. I'm afraid I'm heterosexual.

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate . . .

There's many a fictional version of Shakespeare who has written that poem to some beautiful leading lady of the story; we love to wonder who could inspire such verse. In truth, however, it's probable that this famous sonnet was written to a young man -- and to me, this is a lovely thought. I've seen a few men I'd love to apply it to, men with sunshine in their smiles and a sloppy grace to their form. Shakespeare's eighteenth sonnet is more than just a superlative love poem. It's a rare literary glimpse of the beauty than men can have.

I'm not sure that I love men in the way that men want to be loved. I wouldn't mind loving women. It might be as much easier in some ways as it would be harder in others. It's just that when it comes down to it, I'd much rather compare a man to a summer's day than a woman. Not every man wants to hear that.

Hush, now, don't say it too loud, but men are beautiful. It's one of the best-kept secrets of all time.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

He really should have had a blog.

This post is for the Nonbelieving Literati and refers to Voltaire's Zadig.

Voltaire should have had a blog. Look at him, right there on the page, Mister Magpie Mind himself in fits and starts and 'and thens', in conceits and delights slopped messily onto the page with very little editing. Make that no editing at all. He'd have been right at home in the blogging world, being witty and sarcastic and off-the-cuff with the best of them. I'd love to read Voltaire's blog. Wouldn't you?

I laugh, almost, at the way that nothing that happens is Zadig's fault. It seems disingenuous to me, almost tongue-in-cheek. "Oh please, good sirs, I acted with the purest of intentions!" I can't shake off the feeling that Voltaire is sitting inside the page laughing at us, protesting his own innocence when he knows his own tongue was downright wicked at times! It's conceit, I tell you, pure careless conceit, and I don't think Voltaire cares who knows it. There is a liberation in it, a sort of permission to love yourself with wry honesty and accept that, deep down, you're rather partial to yourself. Now, aren't you? Admit it.

Zadig might be the character Voltaire would like to be, cheerful and rational in the face of adversity, penetrating but still diplomatic, conveniently following a course of events that demonstrates everything Voltaire feels like demonstrating. Time and again, science and rationality triumph in the hands of Zadig -- as does the notion of a more abstract Supreme Being, a Creator that does not depend on petty religious details.

It's not an easy story to follow; basically one thing happens after another and that is very nearly it. You could break it up into small pieces and maybe enjoy it more. Indeed, while reading it, I found the best way to enjoy it was simply to enjoy the moment and not care about the mess it made as a whole. No doubt it would also be easier to understand if you were reading it at the time it was written, because there are plenty of references that no longer make sense.

So, yes. It would have been better as a blog. Oh, but I thought it was fun for all that.


Apologies for my long absence. The closer I get to leaving, the more urgent this real world over here feels. I've found my passport. I've told the guy I like that I like him (He does not quite return the same sentiment, alas, but at least I've said it). I'm supposed to visit my dear old gran, and buy my sisters birthday presents, and I still have paperwork to fill out, and -- well. It's not for a couple of months, yet, but it feels awfully close.

Friday, 6 June 2008


Kick up your heels, and wear
Pink flowers in your hair
And stop to feel the echoed kiss upon the air

Stand on the brink, and be
Catch breath in brevity
And string each fleeting note into a melody

Live from the heart, and know
Your mind works even so
For sometimes all of life is in the letting go

I like this one. I know it's sappy and I don't care. Pink flowers! Gotta love it.

On the other hand, I'm alternating between thinking the title is perfect and thinking it's a flimsy attempt to lower expectations. Maybe I'll come up with something else, who knows?

Saturday, 31 May 2008

I may be wrong, but I believe that . . .

Well, I picked this meme up off the Exterminator. And yes, I know I owe at least two of you a meme from way back that I may or may not ever get around to giving you (sorry about that), but this one just sort of looked like fun. The rules are:

Think of some things you believe that may be wrong. Write them on your blog. Don’t tag anyone, but drop the hint that if your friends really care about your feelings, they’ll follow through with their own lists.

1. My passport has vanished off the face of the Earth and if I'm going to get a visa in time I'll need to apply for a new one pronto. Pity. That passport was an old friend.

2. String theory is not an accurate description of reality on the small scale. Oh, and we're stuck with quantum weirdness. The sensible way to react to quantum mechanics is simply to accept that many things that we would consider basic truisms are actually merely the product of having evolved at a level where quantum effects are not perceptible.

3. Death is the end. When you die, you cease to exist.

4. It's not quite so evil to download Series Four of Doctor Who off the internet if you've already paid the show quite a lot of money by buying the whole of Series Three.

5. Philosophy is not a waste of time.

6. If I turn up to this cute, witty short guy's show on Thursday, I've got half a chance of kissing him if I can get him alone. Hope my cold has cleared up by then.

7. Nobody reading this really cares whether I end on a 'lucky' number like seven or a perfect number like six.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Wonderfully mad.

It's been a while. Sorry. I have been somewhat busy -- notably with the wonderfully mad 48 Hour Filmmaking Competition last weekend. I know so many great crazy people here. Why did I want to leave, again?

(It's not till September, mind, but I've made my choice now. I'm going to be in California, that's as much as I've decided to say on this blog. Perhaps wonderfully mad people won't be so difficult to find over there, either.)

Speaking of wonderfully mad people, last night I had the absolute privilege of taking part in a public reading of an unfinished play written by a friend of mine. It's the first proper creative interaction I've had with her since I got back from the UK, actually. I walked into the auditorium where the reading was taking place and the first thing I noticed was the smell of incense. The second thing I noticed was that -- well, of course -- she'd had the sense to eschew the separation between stage and seats in favour of setting up cushions and a few benches on the stage itself. She had candles and nibbles, and a few friends along to help her out, and when she asked me how I was, I felt the uncomfortableness in my simple 'fine' (who is ever simply 'fine'?) -- but she said nothing of it and I knew I'd loosen up. It's been too long since I've entered one of her spaces, carefully and fearlessly imagined with absolute openness. She was playing the Beatles over the sound system while she set up and I had the odd urge to dance. The last character I played for her loved to dance. It was my character's central metaphor (she was a poetic type). I think my character would have liked to be a dancer, actually, but she worked in a craft shop, which she liked, too, because it was fun to play a small part in helping people make stuff. And yes, that's mostly just back-story which only made it to the stage in little things like having her knitting in one scene.

My playwright friend believes in a hundred things that ought to be anathema to my skeptical self. She believes in astral projection and yoga whatnot and in a sort of global consciousness and I don't know what else. If it wasn't her, maybe I'd say more often that I don't believe a word of it, maybe I'd make more firm statements like I do when my best friend from high school starts talking like she thinks Tarot cards could actually tell you something. But it is her. This is her space and I worship her space with its free-flying creativity. Cutting takes place elsewhere; this is where things grow. I just can't say 'Don't think that'.

She almost never asks anyone else to believe along with her. She asks people to imagine. I think she prefers imagination. She believes in the power of the mind to subtly influence the world, and for that purpose an imagined thing might even be stronger and more organic than a believed thing. And so, in her space, I leave behind the truth of the world and accept the truth of myself. This is subjective space. Objective space is important, too, but it can wait.

Thursday, 1 May 2008


This post is for the Nonbelieving Literati; I'm afraid it may be less comprehensible if you haven't read the book. We've been reading 'A Room of One's Own' by Virginia Woolf.

I have been there.

I have been there, and they did not refuse me entrance to the library but bade me enter and write my name in a red book, as Newton once did. They gave me a room of my own with a desk and a bed and filled my mind to bursting six mornings a week.

Once a week I'd make my way to formal dinners, to sit with gowned humanities students getting drunk on nearly-free alcohol and discussing everything from politics to philosophy to pornography. We'd stay out late and optimistically propose meeting in Hall for breakfast the next morning.

They never did meet me, of course. Breakfast closes at 9am, no matter what day of the week it is. Nobody gets up for breakfast before 9am when they've been out drinking the night before. Nobody but me, innocently without a hangover, gazing out the window after the alarm had gone off and getting fired up on morningness like a child who has never seen the world before. I'd walk, run, dance through the garden, across the road, down the Avenue. I'd step with carefree possessiveness through those arches, into the nearly deserted Hall at breakfast on Saturday morning, and eat my fried eggs across from whichever portrait on the wall took my fancy.

There are no women on the walls.

I swapped Emmy Noether stories with another young woman one night. Did you know her father tried to stop her? And have you heard the quote about "Emmy is the centre of co-ordinates . . ."? And of course you know what Hilbert said, gosh but that was a good one.

We cling to Emmy Noether, just a little, we young algebraists and theoretical physicists. There are no women on the walls, but once upon a time in another place there was Emmy Noether . . .

Yet when I see the shallow layers worn away on the steps, worn down by the shoes of students -- those shoes are mine. Though they were all men, or most of them, their shoes are mine and my feet step in their footprints and they belong to me and I to them. Once this place was barred to us but we have found our way inside and the men who once lived here belong to us now, too. Their legacy is ours.

Our legacy will be yours, some day.

EDIT: The next book is my choice, and will be 'Zadig', by Voltaire. You can get it from Amazon or from a library, of course -- or if you don't mind reading it off a screen you can get it here for free.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

This is just to say that I have been converted . . .

. . . into a Doctor Who fan.

In my defence, however, the Doctor is clearly a humanist. I mean, he's not human himself, of course, but he likes human beings in a very humanist sort of way, and it's not as if he has any religious beliefs that might disqualify him.

At any rate, having made it to the end of Series 2 (which is very much an ending), I'm sort of hoping that I'll be able to stop watching every Doctor Who DVD I can get my hands on and start doing, you know, stuff. Like the Nonbelieving Literati, for example. Which reminds me, have I misread the pattern or is it my turn to choose the next book after this one?

Friday, 18 April 2008

With thanks to my atheist mother

It always interests me when the subject of 'atheist parenting' comes up in the blogosphere. I find it slightly strange the way it is sometimes approached as a new phenomenon. For many deconverts, of course, it is a new idea, one that they have to work out for themselves as they anticipate having children. If I ever have children, however, raising them as atheists will hardly be new territory. I've seen it done. I've been on the receiving end of it!

This post is for some of the things I owe my mother; specifically, for some atheist things I owe her. I say my 'mother' because, well, Dad has always been the one with the full time job. He's around, and very loving when he is around, but it's my mother who had the greatest effect on the crucial things. So, with apologies to Dad, he's only going to appear in this post in the form of various side notes.

Not all of these things are confined to atheists. In fact, now I think of it, nearly all of them could have at least some applicability to a religious upbringing, depending on your level of liberalism. Nonetheless, they relate strongly to values associated with freethought. I have three subheadings.

1. Science

One of my earliest memories is -- well, it's fragmentary these days, tied to a single picture and a dimly remembered feeling of fascination. The story goes like this.

You know how kids go through a stage where they're trying to distinguish between male and female? It takes a while to learn the little clues (Genuine memory that just flashed into my head: "Most of the time, long haired people are women. Some men have long hair, too, though." That's my mother, trying to explain some of the clues that might help. "Only men have beards" would have been a useful one; pity it's of such limited use. And so on.). Anyway, the way my mother tells it, I was about three and had developed an annoying habit of pointing to people in the supermarket saying "Mummy, mummy, that one there! Is that a man or a woman?"

Questions like that, spoken loudly in a public place, can be embarrassing. "Why, Mummy? Why is that a man?" I suspect the main reason my mother came up with this plan was as a way of shutting me up. "Wait until we get home and I'll explain," she told me, and I can't tell you if the impatience I remember is a real memory or a superimposed one; it was twenty years ago, after all. If it is a real memory, though, then I can tell you that it all sounded very mysterious and that I didn't like having to wait.

So we got home, and she went upstairs and got the book she'd used to tell me about where babies come from when she was expecting my little sister. It's a good book, full of actual scientific photographs. I know I have some memory of this book, because when I saw it, more than a decade later, I recognised the page that she had turned to for this explanation.

"These are chromosomes," she told me (I thought of them as 'krome-zomes' for years afterwards). "Boys have an X chromosome and a Y chromosome. Girls have two X chromosomes. The egg always has an X chromosome from the mother, but the sperm can have an X chromosome or a Y chromosome . . . "

What's the moral of this story? Tell your kids stuff. Encourage them to ask questions by giving them answers -- "I'll tell you when we get home" is a much better response than "Just be quiet and don't be rude." If they're listening and not bored, don't be scared of overloading them with information -- it took me a while to realise my mother was only referring to one out of twenty-three pairs of chromosomes, even though I'm sure she explained that at the time, but that was okay. I just filled in the details when I got older.

Oh, and if you're lucky, they'll make cute precocious statements. My father loves to tell the story of the man who came to visit when I was four who said to me "You're a very clever little girl, aren't you?" and received the response "That's because I have two X krome-zomes." My mother used to scoff at that story. "Of course she knew what chromosomes were. I told her."

2. Sexuality

Another one of my earliest memories is being given a small hand mirror by my mother so I could look at my vulva. As memories go, it pairs nicely with the previous one, both because I was about the same age and because I was at least as fascinated if not more so. If you're a girl, you can't necessarily see your genitals easily without a mirror. It's nice to know what's there.

When I mentioned this memory to my mother, she said she spent the whole time feeling terribly uncomfortable. If that's true, all I can say is that I owe her doubly for not communicating that to me at the time. This memory is only one small part of what it takes to build comfort with your own body, of course, but I'm sure it's crucial -- why else would I remember it so clearly?

Think about it. Generations of children were told at that age not to touch that part, and don't look at that part or think too much about it, and those are your secret parts, and whatever. And my mother? She gave me a mirror. I love her so much.

When I get into my teens, my mother also told me how to masturbate. Is that odd? It was a serviceable explanation, spoken in the rather factual but otherwise ordinary tone my mother usually retreats to when one of us brings up sexuality. My own feelings about sex are mixed and murky. (So are my mother's. Her early experiences of sex were rather unpleasant. Do I blame her? Yes and no.) I can't be ashamed of masturbation, though. It has no disadvantages. There's nothing for the shame to stick to.

Then there are the various books she supplied me with -- Our Bodies, Ourselves, and the one by Sheila Kitzinger with 'sex' in the title that I shelved spine-backwards at age sixteen when she gave it to me and then pulled out at age eighteen and read with fascination and occasional arousal. I quite like the idea of non-fiction as erotica, actually. I looked for that book when I was twenty-one and couldn't find it. I think my eldest little sister took it. The enlightenment goes on!

3. Rules and Morality

I like this one best of all. My mother is determinedly, thoughtfully moral. Indeed, her approach to teaching us morality was rather like her approach to teaching us science. Just as we were always allowed to ask questions of fact, so also we were always allowed to ask questions about the rules. "Because I said so" was a banned phrase; "argument from authority," she'd have called it. Maybe if she was really tired and exasperated she'd resort to "Oh, please, just behave, I don't have time to argue this right now." Most of the time she'd have the discussion and give us the explanation, though, because she believed in the principle of open debate, and she believed in not claiming to be infallible. If she was wrong, we should argue with her, and she'd change if we could make her see it. Basic principles like fairness and not hurting people were taken for granted, I admit; we never thought to question those. Perhaps they were partially built into us; more likely, I think, we learned what sorts of arguments were acceptable by example.

Interesting, isn't it? She taught us morality and critical thinking at the same time. If you're logical to begin with, having morality presented to you in the form of reasoned argument is a great way to embed it as deeply as it will go. I respect reasons.

There's more I could say on this subject. I'm particularly lucky in that I had educated parents -- my mother left school at sixteen, actually, but she still knew enough biology to tell me about chromosomes. I guess the most important thing was that she knew how to share her knowledge with a small child! Later, she went to university, studied philosophy, and ended up introducing me to all manner of theories of ethics. There's nothing like having a list of counterexamples to make the notion that you can't have a theory of morality without God seem particularly silly. As for my Dad, he's a forest scientist with a crazy love for astronomy -- when they taught me in school to say "my very elegant mother just sat upon nine porcupines" I couldn't help thinking that "Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto" would be a more obvious way of listing those letters in that order. It took me a moment to realise that wasn't the point.

So, yeah, I'm lucky. I won't say there were no disadvantages to my parents' way of bringing me up. I have a long list of things I'd do differently. Atheism isn't one of them, though. In bringing me up as an atheist, my parents gave me an incredible head start.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

My letter to Monique Davis

Rep. Monique Davis of the state legislature in Illinois caught the attention of the atheist blogosphere recently with her startling outburst (reported here) to atheist Rob Sherman, who was testifying against the allocation of state funds to rebuild a historic (but still operating) church:

Davis: I don’t know what you have against God, but some of us don’t have much against him. We look forward to him and his blessings. And it’s really a tragedy -- it’s tragic -- when a person who is engaged in anything related to God, they want to fight. They want to fight prayer in school.

I don’t see you (Sherman) fighting guns in school. You know?

I’m trying to understand the philosophy that you want to spread in the state of Illinois. This is the Land of Lincoln. This is the Land of Lincoln where people believe in God, where people believe in protecting their children.… What you have to spew and spread is extremely dangerous, it’s dangerous--

Sherman: What’s dangerous, ma’am?

Davis: It’s dangerous to the progression of this state. And it’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists! Now you will go to court to fight kids to have the opportunity to be quiet for a minute. But damn if you’ll go to [court] to fight for them to keep guns out of their hands. I am fed up! Get out of that seat!

Sherman: Thank you for sharing your perspective with me, and I’m sure that if this matter does go to court---

Davis: You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying! You believe in destroying what this state was built upon.

Unbelievable stuff. Since then, the Council for Secular Humanism has called for Monique Davis to resign, and there have been several calls for an apology. Davis has responded by apologising to Sherman, as reported here.

Maybe I'm just being influenced by Alonzo Fyfe's take, but really, Davis' apology disturbs me more than the reports on her initial comment did. We don't know exactly what she said, because it wasn't a public apology, it was a personal one to the person she blew up at. It's nice to know that she understands that it's polite to apologise to someone you yell at, but does she even understand that what she said about atheists -- all atheists -- was wrong? What's with that reference to school shootings? Does she blame atheists for those?

I can't know for sure what Monique Davis believes or was trying to say. I have, however, sent her a letter asking for clarification. I have no idea what she'll think to receive a letter from New Zealand that won't reach her for a week on a subject that most closely concerns the atheist citizens in her own state, but I find I can't keep silent. The text of my letter is given below.


Flat _
_ _______ Street
New Zealand

11 April, 2008

Dear Ms Davis,

I am writing with regard to the remarks you made to Rob Sherman, stating that atheists ‘believe in destroying’ and that it is ‘dangerous for children to even know that [atheism] exists’. I wish to commend you for apologizing to Mr Sherman for your remarks. However, you do not merely owe an apology to Mr Sherman. You owe an apology to all atheists.

I myself am an atheist and secular humanist. My atheist mother, who is currently doing a PhD in ethics, brought me up to think as carefully about what is morally good as I do about what is objectively true. I believe in showing compassion to others. I believe in justice. I believe in being open to new evidence. I believe in not pre-judging people by their religion or lack thereof.

In stating that atheists ‘believe in destroying’, you have shown incredible bigotry to all people who, for whatever reason, come to believe that God probably does not exist. I urge you to consider your atheist constituents and apologize to them, too, as a lawmaker who publicly stated that they did not have a right to be heard by the state government. I realize your comments were spoken in the heat of the moment. Please take the opportunity to put them right!

I am also concerned to hear that, in your apology to Sherman, you explained that you were upset that day because you heard that two Chicago students had been shot to death. I hope this does not mean that you succumb to the bigotry that blames atheists for school shootings. No good reason for such blame exists. When we hear that children have died, we grieve, too. We cannot even comfort ourselves with the thought that the children will live on in heaven. I have nothing but contempt for the people who use such tragedies to try to inspire hatred of unrelated groups. I would be grateful for clarification of what you meant when you referred to school shootings in your apology to Mr Sherman.

I am a New Zealander, not an American. I do not have to face the anti-atheist sentiment that some unlucky American atheists put up with on a regular basis. However, as a member of the international atheist community, I hope that more Americans will come to understand that atheists generally do not believe in destroying. Indeed, atheism is all the more reason to try to do good in the world. Since there is no God, if we do not build the world we wish to see, no-one will.

Yours sincerely,


I even Americanized my spelling for her. I'd like to say it was politeness; I'm sorry to say it may have been an indication of my opinion of her openmindedness. Not that American spelling izn't uzually more sensible when you think about it.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Introducing Odo Hirsch

I read children's books. A lot of children's books. I never really stopped, because there was no way I was going to give up my favourite authors just because I was entering my teens. I do not think I have ever had enough favourite authors.

My pseudonym is taken from a children's book -- specifically this children's book entitled The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf, by Gerald Morris; Lynet is the eponymous Savage Damsel. The series of which it is a part is delightful despite being shabby in places: sweet and good and humble and humourous. It's also written by a Christian minister. Not, perhaps, the most apt pseudonym for an atheist blogger, but then, I never expected to blog about atheism!

Sometimes you can pick the books written by authors who take their Christianity seriously. I don't mean the ones who throw it in your face, I mean the ones for whom it shows up naturally, because Christianity is such a large part of their lives that they can't leave it out of what they write. I'm thinking, for example, of Madeleine L'Engle, who makes love the central empowering force for the side of good in A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels. There's also Sherryl Jordan, a New Zealander like me, who pulled off a (halfway convincing!) World Peace ending in Time of the Eagle, achieved through the work of a character who survives by having faith in the purpose she believes has been laid down for her. You can see the Christian belief structure. Does it bother me? A little. Am I skeptical of it? Yes. Do I learn from it? Definitely. Do I like these authors? Oh, so much!

At the very least, I needn't be ashamed of liking Katherine Paterson -- she's another author who belongs in this category, perhaps the best writer of them all. She writes with such incredible sympathy for her characters (the same is true of Orson Scott Card). Moreover, we atheists owe her a vote of thanks. In Leslie (from Bridge to Terabithia) we have a sympathetic atheist character that we can be proud to be represented by: imaginative, intelligent, non-conforming, courageous. Paterson even goes so far as to take the cruelty of eternal damnation and slam it in the reader's face! Yet she herself is Christian. Her other Newbery-Award-winning book is Jacob Have I Loved, which deals with the problem of feeling that God might hate you. And yes, when I read her, or Card, or Gerald Morris, or Sherryl Jordan, or Madeleine L'Engle, sometimes I can't help thinking 'How can we duplicate this?' How can we duplicate that sympathy? How can we duplicate the good aspects that come (I assume) from having a community which encourages you to think about others and love them just as they are? More complicatedly, this emphasis on love, faith, God's plan and whatever isn't precisely the angle I would want to take! It has good aspects, and regular focus on those things as part of being actively religious can have a nice effect, but I wouldn't want to buy the whole thing. What do I want?

I have some answers. Daylight Atheism. A little familiarity with philosophy. Book clubs. Meditation without the surrounding mysticism? Humanist groups? Humanism, certainly. Philip Pullman, Terry Pratchett, various other authors who present a rich and complex worldview that deals with the atheist perspective . . .

. . . and one Odo Hirsch, who somehow captures the simple half.

I don't know that Hirsch is an atheist. He's notoriously shy with all personal data. This is an amusing example. This article is in fact the most detailed information I've been able to find about him on the internet (notably, he's worked as a doctor and as a business consultant, studied political thought at Cambridge, and did some work for Amnesty International). Let me say, then, that I would intuit that Hirsch is a non-believer in the same way that I might intuit that an author is Christian. Hirsch obviously has a deep philosophy, it permeates his work -- and God never shows up. Reading him is like reading one of my favourite Christian authors, except that I'm not looking at some fuzzy other-person's-worldview that I have to sift through, I'm looking at something that often hits me clear as day.

If I had to name some authors who can make me see simple goodness and light in the world when I'm tired and stressed and don't feel like reading something complicated, I'd name Gerald Morris and Odo Hirsch. Morris writes light Arthurian retellings that can laugh at themselves. Hirsch is something else entirely. When Hirsch writes one of his happy books, it's as if he's done the usual thing by writing a book for children in which all distress is minor and happiness prevails in the end -- but done it with an incredibly sophisticated notion of happiness. No pasted-on smiles, here. There are reasons why Hirsch's characters are happy. You can learn something about happiness by reading one of his simple little children's books. You can see the happiness in the world from having had it sketched out for you.

Frankel Mouse has perhaps the most obvious moral. I once read a review that described Frankel, his brother Berrell and the small, frightened mouse Michael that Frankel has taken in as a 'dysfunctional mouse family' and bridled. They're not dysfunctional! Berrell is dysfunctional. Frankel is about as functional as you can get. You might worry, I suppose, about the way Berrell stays at home all day and makes Frankel look for the cheese. Of the two, though, Frankel is much happier, and you can see that Berrell's unhappiness is entirely his own fault. Frankel's work gives him a purpose and an identity. "We are the cheese-stealers!" he explains to Michael. If Berrell is grumpy, it's because he sits in a corner all day and never does anything. No wonder he almost seems to welcome the arrival of daredevil Cousin Ruthie. Frankel, by contrast, dreads Cousin Ruthie's arrival -- but I think he does admit at one point that her fun-loving, adventurous ways do make life more exciting . . .

Other lighthearted works from Odo Hirsch include the ones about Bartlett the Explorer ("Inventiveness, Desperation, Perseverance!"), and the ones about Hazel Green, an inquisitive extrovert who has multiple friendships with the adults who run the various stores on the ground floor of the skyscraper in which she lives, and who is forever asking them questions about what they do. Hazel Green is in fact my favourite Odo Hirsch book -- central to the book is her developing friendship with the local math geek.

Hirsch can write characters whose lives are full of meaning, but he is also capable of writing characters who look for meaning. Antonio S and the Mystery of Theodore Guzman has a bittersweet tone, as does Pincus Corbett's Strange Adventure. The latter describes a simple, reliable tailor who is tired of making boring things and starts a project of his own -- a colourful coat that can give him a new identity. Does it make him happier? Well, yes, it's better than nothing, but somehow I remember the story as being a little sad, all the same.

Writing for young adults, Hirsch seems to go in the opposite direction: Yoss is remarkably dark, as is Slaughterboy according to all the reviews (though I haven't read the latter). They're both coming-of-age novels, and they both deal with finding independence in a harsh world. Yoss is deep, to be sure, but it wasn't an easy read. Still, it showed me a side of Odo Hirsch that I hadn't seen before. He's capable of more than just sweetness and light. I was thrilled to see that Will Buster and the Gelmet Helmet includes some of the stronger themes of Yoss in a less dark, livelier fashion. Still, I think he's capable of taking that further. I'm waiting for the next step, the next book that blends happiness and darkness. Right now, I think he's still on his way up.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Against Preferring Fundamentalists

There are atheists who say they have more respect for fundamentalist believers than for liberals. At least the fundamentalists follow their own logic, even if it is horrible -- so the reasoning goes. Fundamentalists, supposedly, are consistent within their own worldview, they don't "pick and choose", they don't rely on fuzzy, feel-good reasoning. They have their picture and they stick with it, whereas the liberal Christian picture doesn't even make sense.

I want to speak up for the liberal Christians.

There's a sonnet by John Donne that begins "At the round earth's imagin'd corners, blow / Your trumpets, angels . . . ". At the round Earth's imagin'd corners. You see, Revelations 7:1 says "I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth." The Earth has no corners, but we may imagine them, let our religion in this one aspect be an element only of the life of the mind, a flight of the imagination that makes sense on an emotional, poetic level.

I get that. And you'll note that it's hardly a new idea! Fred Clark the Slacktivist has a certain liking for John Donne. That quote below his blog title about "knock, breathe, shine and seek to mend" is from another of Donne's "Holy Sonnets". And yes, I like that poem, too. For me the whole thing is mere flight of the imagination -- a view which the author would not approve of, I'm sure! Worse still, I don't necessarily agree with the poem's stance, even as metaphor, for it views human nature as sinful and speaks of help only as coming from without, and its call to be completely overthown is too similar to calls made by Christians for their reason to be overthrown for me to be able to be comfortable with it. Nevertheless, it is such a powerful, visceral cry for goodness that I can't help but be caught by it. Thus I can understand religious humanists, and the others who do not liberalise themselves quite so far, who blend truth and tradition by means of metaphor, retaining the structure of belief as an aspect of their lives, and retaining the belief itself to various degrees.

Some Christians, of course, are afraid that they or others will go this far. They would read what I have written above and say "See? This is why we can't go around taking stuff metaphorically all the time." Many of them would then go on to explain that not taking the Bible literally might let you support abortion or (gasp) homosexuality. Of course, the abortion thing is ridiculous, because there isn't a single verse in the Bible that guarantees either that abortion is wrong or that the soul is implanted at conception. In fact, there's at least one passage (Exodus 21:22-23) that sort of implies otherwise. Moreover, if anyone's 'picking and choosing' with no obvious justification, it's the people who pick the invisible verse condemning abortion along with "If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination" (Lev:20:13) and Paul's statement in 1 Romans referring to "women [who] exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural" and "men . . . [who] were consumed with passion for one another" as "errors" and "degrading passions", while completely ignoring some or all of the following:

Deut 22:5 A woman shall not wear a man’s apparel, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whoever does such things is abhorrent to the Lord your God.

How many of the people who speak against homosexuality also speak against women wearing trousers? I bet some of them are women wearing trousers.

Deut 22:11 You shall not wear clothes made of wool and linen woven together.

Enough said. Nobody is demanding laws against wool/linen garments.

Lev 25:44 As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you [and not from the Israelites] that you may acquire male and female slaves.
Eph 6:5-6 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.
(and many more from both Old and New Testaments)

People used to care about those ones, but people who liked those verses usually preferred to ignore this verse:

Deut 23:15-16 Slaves who have escaped to you from their owners shall not be given back to them. They shall reside with you, in your midst, in any place they choose in any one of your towns, wherever they please; you shall not oppress them.

Small mitigation, I think.

I could go on until everybody is bored, but I won't (go to the Skeptic's Annotated Bible and you'll be able to pull out hundreds of verses that most of those who deride homosexuality don't follow, I'm sure). People over the centuries have used the Bible for their purposes and derided as "pickers and choosers" those who didn't come to the conclusions mandated by the verses they chose. Such people always ignore plenty of other verses. The reason those people -- whether railing against homosexuality, miscegenation, women's rights or the abolition of slavery -- seem to refer to the Bible more often than their opponents is very simple. It's because they don't have anything else to refer to. It doesn't mean that they actually take the Bible any more literally.

If you're going to pick and choose, by all means pick "love your neighbour as yourself"! Yes, to do so requires an extra-Biblical value judgement (oh, no!), but at least there is some justification! Unlike fundamentalists, people who pick "love your neighbour" aren't picking and choosing for no good reason. They have a reason. It's quite a good one. It's the common human sense of morality, not mandated by the universe, but felt by nearly all human beings in some form. To be sure, morality of this type can get fuzzy around the edges, but the Golden Rule has arisen independently in many, many cultures, and it's always considered crucial. It's not arbitrary, merely relative to humanity. Humanity in general, that is.

Don't feed the fundamentalists. Don't tell them they actually take the Bible more seriously. They'll just say "Yes, that's right, the Bible forbids abortion!" (It doesn't. Remember?)

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Nonbelieving Literati: Not the End of the World

'I don't like affectation. That doesn't mean I try and make everyone look like they just got up in the morning -- that would be a form of affectation too. I like to try and get behind the screens folks put up, get an image of the person they are when they think no-one's looking. Far easier said than done, right enough. Soon as you point a camera at somebody, they perform. Some do it more subtly than others, but they all play a part.'

'Dave made your pictures sound like, I don't know, psychological X-rays.'

'Nah. Nothing quite so wanky and sophisticated. But you can usually tell what I think of the subject without much in the way of in-depth analysis.'

Steff got back to his plate, oddly relieved to have headed off the discussion.

Many of his pictures were psychological X-rays. Fortunately, most people didn't recognise who of.

Thus do we hear the photographer Steff Kennedy's view of his own art in Not the End of the World. I can't help but wonder if author Christopher Brookmyre's view of his own writing is similar: self-conscious, with a hint of self-congratulation for the self-deprecation he allows himself in thinking of this work, coupled with an insecure, and justified, fear of wankiness.

The book is very quotable in places, witty and sometimes even profound for brief moments that don't quite string together properly. I was touched by Larry Freeman's thought that there are orphans, and there are widows, but there's no word for a parent who loses a child. Quite why Larry Freeman has to have lost a child is less obvious. It's irrelevant to the story, and it's not an aspect of his character that actually develops; it seems to be a bauble that figuratively hangs around his character's neck, something to make him seem more interesting, I don't know.

Indeed, Christopher Brookmyre's ability to develop or even convincingly describe character is -- I can put this no more simply -- terrible. Nowhere is this more obvious than in his stereotyped view of fundamentalist Christians, who conveniently justify Steff Kennedy's oh-so-hip contempt for them in every way possible. I'm sorry, but I don't buy that final scene where evil preacher ("Lex") Luther St John isn't willing to die for what he says he believes in. One of the scary things about fundamentalists is that many of them would just love to be persecuted and die for what they believe, and, whatever else you can say about Luther's character, he is portrayed as a true believer, and a terribly messed up true believer at that. You're telling me he wouldn't play to a martyr's script if you strung him up on a cross? Don't be silly.

Ah, but the fundamentalists are nothing compared with Madeleine. So let me just warn you, I'm about to get frank about some of my views on sex -- and, ahem, somewhat impolite about our author's apparent opinions thereof.

Madeleine, Madeleine, Madeleine. Maddy. Magdalene. Where to start? Our dear Maddy used to be a porn actress. She's one of the good guys, naturally, not like those evil fundamentalists who oppose pornography for prurient reasons, or those odd Dworkinites who think pornography demeans women in some way. Indeed, Maddy watched some pornography for a psychology class at university and understood immediately what the ramifications were and were not:

As she had quickly come to learn, there is no such thing as an 'experiment' in academic psychology, because that would suggest the prof was in some doubt as to what the results would be. He knew all along that sustained exposure to this material would make the depicted behaviour seem more natural, commonplace and perfectly ordinary; the effect was 'demystification' rather than desensitization. So a blow-job neither elevated the recipient male to a position of dominance and supremacy any more than it made the woman a debased slattern deserving of all contempt: it was just a blow-job. A pussy wasn't any kind of mystic portal to the sexual dimension: it was a pussy. The men were neither perverts nor superstuds for doing what they were doing; the women neither whores nor goddesses. They were all just people fucking. And it was no big deal.

Alas! I am not in a position to comment directly on this. However, the wonderful Greta Christina, who is resolutely pro-porn and does know what she is talking about, has written this about people assuming that the stuff that happens in porn is normal sex (when in fact most of the time the details are dictated by what looks good, not by what feels good). She has also written this about the complexities involved in supporting porn:

I also think that pro-porn advocates -- myself included -- need to stop pretending that there isn't a problem. We need to recognize that the overwhelming majority of porn -- or rather, the overwhelming majority of video porn, which is the overwhelming majority of porn -- is sexist, is patriarchal, does perpetuate body fascism, does create unrealistic sexual expectations for both women and men, does depict sex in ways that are not only overwhelmingly focused on male pleasure, but are rigid and formulaic and mind-numbingly tedious to boot. And we need to be trying to do something about it.

Christopher Brookmyre is having Maddy say a load of rubbish here. Pornography is fine. Fine! Nothing wrong with it at all! No possible objections! Any fool can see that!

So why, oh please, why was our dear former porn actress only doing it because her Daddy abused her when she was little? How does that fit into Brookmyre's script? Sure, porn is fine -- but nice girls only do it because they were abused as children. Madeleine is a nice girl, you know. Not one of those -- sluts!

You think it couldn't get worse, don't you? It gets worse. Having created this slimy contradiction in values, Brookmyre can think of nothing better to do than to have sex with it in the form of his Mary Sue, Steff Kennedy. Steff Kennedy is interestingly tall and blond. Steff Kennedy takes no bullshit and commits heresy on a regular basis (coool . . .). Steff Kennedy has watched one of Madeleine's porn videos, but it is only when he sees the real her that he becomes suddenly transported to the daft world of the desperately in love, where he feels cutely awkward and humbly oblivious to the obvious fact that -- of course -- she likes him too.

His stomach was churning. His bloody stomach was churning. He hadn't felt like this since he was about fifteen, and the worst of it was that it was for all the same reasons as back then. Thinking about what she looked like, what she smelt like, her smile, the sound of her voice. Excited by the very thought of seeing her, worried by the thought that she wouldn't show, nervousness multiplied with every unfeasibly long minute that passed.

There's more like that. A whole lot more. Remembering the patronising way the author had endowed the object of this stereotypical worship with a pity-inducing excuse for being a porn star, I wanted to spew. But I'd have settled for the author taking his hand off his you-know-what for long enough to write something that didn't reek of sugar and semen.

Instead, I had to watch as the evil fundamentalist Christians tried to use Maddy as a pawn, a tool to promote their ideology by forcing her to repent. Luckily, Steff comes up with the idea that saves the day! Then he head-butts her evil, abusing father so hard that the father is thrown to the wall, all while making cute sarcastic remarks with his hard-to-fathom (but very coool) sense of humour. It was nice to see Maddy take the stage and turn the tables on the moralising pundits who believed her dead, but I wished I could have seen her turn the tables on her author. He, too, is using her to promote his ideology, and he, too, does not respect her.

I know it can be hard for the best of liberals to entirely shake off the complex, powerful memes that surround sex for long enough to perceive the best way for people to enjoy their lives. Heck, I, for one, have had to concede with regard to my own feelings that sexual repression is not just a weird disease they had in the fifties. Finding the best way to view a sexual issue can take time and thought, and even then you won't always be sure you're right. I'd be more inclined to cut Christopher Brookmyre some slack if he wasn't so obviously wanking to the messed-up ideas that he blithely subscribes to.