Thursday, February 25, 2010

Come see me at Stanford!

On Wednesday, March 3rd I'll be hopping on another plane to my grad school interview at Stanford. The Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics (AHA!) at Stanford have been nice enough to invite me to give a little talk! I'll be discussing my experiences as an atheist blogger, touching on my thoughts about the atheist blogosphere, how my blog rose to popularity, and what it's like being a woman in a male dominated community.
When: Wednesday, March 3 at 7 pm
Where: Old Union 201 at Stanford University
Who: Me!
It'll probably be pretty informal (ie, I will probably only have time to work on it on the plane), so come with fun questions to ask me. I won't be able to hang around afterward since I'm off to an Official Grad School Dinner, so try to make it to the event!

Thanks so much for inviting me, AHA! I feel pretty special to have my own bio and everything. Let's just pray to the FSM that my flight doesn't get delayed...

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Fun times in Seattle

Not sleepless, though. Seriously, my hotel bed was the most comfortable thing ever. Slept like a baby. I think I've figure out my sleep problems: stop sleeping in beds that are older than I am.

Anyway, Seattle and the University of Washington was a lot of fun. The whole time I was there it was sunny and in the 50s, which felt balmy after coming from below freezing weather. On the downside, apparently people in Seattle are so used to their gloom and rain that they have no idea how to drive when it's sunny out. Seriously, the traffic was absolutely horrible. The Olympics, Bon Jovi concert, and Yo-yo National Tournament may have also had an affect (you know people love their yo-yos).

But that didn't stop me from going on an adventure. One of my readers, Jaki, picked me up so I didn't have to battle the traffic on public transportation. She sounded sweet enough on the phone that I felt my odds were good that she wasn't going to turn out to be an axe murderer. We made our way over to the Pacific Science Center and met up with two more of my readers, Jason and Jerry (it was a J-name party!).

I had a lot of fun. Probably way too much fun than anyone over the age of 10 is intended to have in this place. We went to the dinosaur exhibit first, which had a bunch of animatronic dinosaurs. I hate to say it, but they looked crummy compared to the quality of the brand new Creation Museum, which made me said. But then I was happy when I read all of the information and played the games that were actually teaching good science and not a bunch of make believe.
Where are the human animatronics? I'm so confused. This isn't what I learned at the Creation Museum...

My favorite part of the museum was the big section on genetics. I love science museums like this because it's full of hilarious silly games, like this one where you're a European corn borer and you're trying to destroy as much corn as possible. Hellz yes. It may be corny (ha), but it cracks me up. How many games do you get to play as a European corn borer?!
It's also full of bad puns. What's not to love?
They also had a new exhibit on what it would be like being an astronaut going to Mars.
Some nice subtle product placement there, Microsoft. Apparently now we don't just have to worry about them taking over the world - now we have to worry about Mars too!

It was pretty neat. They had stuff ranging from gloves that simulated the pressure of space, a low-gravity harness simulator, genetically modified plants. They also asked "Who should go to Mars?" with the makings of a reality TV show:
I swear to god I did not do this. Some bored dad was laughing at his creation when I stumbled upon it.

After we had enough of the center, we went and had a nice dinner nearby. It was a ton of fun hanging out with everyone! Unfortunately we didn't get to hang out at the pub too long, since a bunch of people were waiting for tables, but I pretty much fell straight asleep when I got back to my hotel anyway. Body was definitely still on Eastern time.
The next couple of days were devoted to my UW interviews. I was with a group of 16 students, and apparently another 16 had come two weeks before. We were showed around the city, got to see some apartments, met a lot of graduate students, and interviewed with professors. I thought their program was wonderful, and I'm still amazed by the high throughput sequencing resources they had. And today I got an email from one professor that I interviewed with that I was officially accepted, yay!

It's definitely going to be a hard decision. I like UW just as much as Harvard, but for different things. I think I'm going to have to visit Stanford next week, let everything soak in for a bit, and then try to make a decision. Because right now I have no idea what I'd do!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Indiana mom freaks out about harmless fundraiser

I just saw this on the news at the airport, and I knew I had to look it up. An Indiana mom is upset at a fundraiser the Elwood school system has been using for the last 15 years. What could this evil fundraiser be? The middle school sex-a-thon? A baby eating contest? Selling the souls of students for charity?

Nope, it's a silly matchmaking survey.

I laughed when I saw this story because my Indiana middle school and high school did this same exact fundraiser. The questions were horrible things like "How often do you play videogames?" and "Do you like reading books for fun?" We'd then see if any of our best friends made the top ten, giggle, and then forget about it a day later.

But this mom is concerned because it's obviously a survey that promotes underaged sex and teen pregnancy. Are you kidding me? It's a totally optional for charity and for fun. Of course, fun leads to sex. No fun allowed.

Anyway, the idea that middle schoolers still see each other as having cooties is ridiculous. I had classmates who were dating in he 4th grade. Wake up, mom. If you're concerned with your child's sexuality, teach them sex ed. Don't ban everything that may vaguely be associated with relationships.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Guest post: Evils of constructive empiricism

This is a Guest Post by Frank Bellamy, a reader and content manager for the eMpirical, the newsletter for the Secular Student Alliance. He recently wrote an interesting article on why Humanists should not deliver invocations, but today he's going to talk a bit about philosophy. So, discuss your hearts out while I'm away!

Evils of constructive empiricism

Philosophers routinely entertain and foster ideas which are not only stupid, but also an affront to science: dualism, intelligent design, qualia, the list goes on. Another item on that list that I have only recently discovered is constructive empiricism. That phrase may sound harmless enough, after all, scientists like empirical evidence, and being constructive is good, right? It's anything but harmless when one looks at its meaning. According to the Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy, “the constructive empiricist holds that science aims at truth about observable aspects of the world, but that science does not aim at truth about unobservable aspects.” In other words, science gives us no reason for thinking that the unobservable constructs posited by scientific theories actually exist.

A few concrete examples may be useful here. According to the constructive empiricist, we have no good reason to think that atoms exist. After all, no one has ever seen, heard, felt, tasted, or smelled an atom. Atoms may be a useful computational tool for determining what will happen when we mix two substances together, but that is not a reason for attributing actual existence to them. Scientists may even believe that atoms exist, but if they do they go beyond what the evidence warrants.

Evolutionary biologists are in equal trouble. Since we can't actually observe history, we have no reason for believing historical claims. The idea that humans and chimpanzees share a common ancestor more recently than humans and cats may be useful for explaining and predicting various features of the genomes, morphology, or cognitive capacities of these species, but that is not a reason for thinking that any of these species share common ancestors, or indeed that they even have ancestors at all.

To use a more every day example, I have a theory that Jen believes that the christian god does not exist. This theory may be useful in predicting what sorts of things Jen will write on her blog in the future. It allows me to predict, for example, that the next time Jen writes about some amazing new scientific discovery, she will explain it in naturalistic rather than theological terms. But according to the constructive empiricist, that is no reason for thinking that Jen actually has such a belief. Since I can't directly observe any of Jens beliefs, I am completely unwarranted in believing that she has beliefs at all. So much for theory of mind being a positive aspect of human cognition.

Lets set aside the fact that constructive empiricism entails that scientists are liars and consider its practical implications for science. A scientist who believes in constructive empiricism doesn't have to waste time considering such irrelevant questions as whether his pet theory is true or not, or how it relates to other theories in other parts of science. All that matters is whether his pet theory can account for the available data.

One implication of this is that it completely undermines the motivation most scientists have for doing science in the first place. Scientists don't just want equations and models that predict data, we want to understand whatever phenomenon we have chosen to study. We want to know what's actually going on in the world. We want to know how what we're doing relates to other parts of science. If constructive empiricism is true, then we are deluding ourselves. Science isn't in the business of telling us how things really are.

Another implication of constructive empiricism is that it doesn't really matter how well theories in different domains of science match up with each other. If we explain the movement of objects on earth in terms of forces and masses, and the movement of objects in the sky in terms of Ptolemy's spheres, so long as we can predict the data that's ok. If we have physically, neurally, or evolutionarily implausible theories of human cognition, that's ok, so long as we can predict the behavioral data. If scientists were to truly adopt this view, it would change the face of science forever, and not for the better.

And why would I, a grad student with many other non-philosophical demands on his time be worrying about constructive empiricists you may wonder? It's because I've recently discovered that my adviser is one. Frack me.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Christian concert for a public school?

I was listening to the radio on my way to the airport this morning, mainly to have some noise on to keep me awake. I was vaguely listening to some commercial about a benefit concert being held at West Lafayette High School, when a clip from the musical group was played:

"Jesus, help me see the morning light..."

Then I started paying a lot more attention.

Apparently the concert was to raise money for Haiti and for local student athletes in the Lafayette area. They would also be presenting an award to the student who was named athlete of the year.

...Am I the only person that finds this a bit inappropriate?

I think some schools have special rules where outside groups can rent their space, religious or not (correct me if I'm wrong). If this was just some outside group having a concert, it wouldn't bug me. But it seems like the public school system itself is sponsoring and organizing this. It's not just a band that happens to be Christian - they also chose to publicize it using a blatantly religious gospel soundbite.

What about the non-Christian students and student athletes? I was a student athlete - Captain of our golf team - and I would have felt extremely awkward if our award ceremony had been full of gospel music. It's simply inappropriate for a public school.

Am I overreacting? Was I just especially cranky at 6:30 in the morning? Should we not care since it's for a good cause, or should the high school had found a more appropriate, secular band?

Edit: Finally got some real Internet, and it turns out it's for Purdue students. False alarm. Thank you stupid uninformative commercial.

Seattle fun times today!

Don't forget that I'll be in Seattle today for some fun times! All the information is over in this post.

And since this post is unreasonably short, have a lolcat:

Friday, February 19, 2010

Send an Atheist to Church: Final results

The results are in! During our Send an Atheist to Church event, the Society of Non-Theists at Purdue University raised...

$362.95 for Food Finders Food Bank!

That is so amazing! I wasn't sure if we'd even raise $100, but we blew past that goal!

And for those of you who are wondering about the more competitive side of the event, here are the donation results per denomination:
The Episcopalians had the highest amount, just barely beating the Baptists by six cents! Representatives from both of those denominations stopped by and made big donations, which helped put them in the lead. $37.34 was also donated to just a general fund that didn't represent a specific denomination - some people didn't want to send us to any religious service, haha. I guess the Episcopalians and Baptists will have a lot of atheists coming their way soon...

Thanks so much to everyone who donated and to everyone who helped organize the event. I would call this a huge success!

I'm just a stupid undergrad, apparently

I stopped by our Send an Atheist to Church event between my classes to see how it was going. A professor (I won't say from which department, don't want to identify him) was debating with club members working the table. He had initiated the discussion, and I wasn't paying much attention until the topic turned to evolution.

It was a bit odd. He mostly accepted evolution, but believed that Intelligent Design was a better explanation for what guided the process. He argued that atheist philosophers and scientists outright rejected ID, and it never gets a chance to be debated or discussed.

(Not exact quotes, but fairly darn close)

Me: That's because ID isn't scientific.
Him: Yes it is.
Me: No it isn't. Name one testable prediction for ID.
Him: Well there a many, but the complexity of structures like flagella.
Me: First of all, it has been explained numerous times by numerous people how the flagella could evolve in a stepwise natural fashion. Second of all, that's not a way to support or falsify ID. It would falsify evolution, but that doesn't mean God is the answer.
Him: Well all the great scientists were religious. Newton's religion helped him figure out physics.
Me: ...You can be religious and be a scientist. That doesn't mean your religious beliefs are correct too.
Him: Well, how about Francis Collins? He was the head of the Human Genome Project and is the head of NIH.
Me: That's just argument from authority. He's brilliant at genetics, but that doesn't mean he knows everything about evolution.
Him: Are you head of the NIH?
Me: No, but I study genetics and evolution.
Him: Do you have a PhD?
Me: I'm going to start working toward my PhD in the fall, maybe you'll listen to me in five years.

Seriously, how demeaning. Yep, I'm just a dumb undergrad. Obviously I have no say on anything because I don't have a PhD and I'm not the head of NIH, even though evolution is an easy enough concept for teenagers to understand.

I was pretty much done with him at that point. He may as well have said "little girl, go back to your corner and shut up." What a disrespectful way to treat a student, especially when you are the one who has no idea what he's talking about.

I would be sorry for anyone who was in this guy's class. Disagree with him? Nope, you're just dumb and immature. Come back when you have more letters after your name.

Send an Atheist to Church: Preliminary results

About a week ago I mentioned how the Society of Non-Theists would be holding a Send an Atheist to Church event. Yesterday was our first day, and we exceeded expectations! We raised about 140 dollars, and the Exponent (local student newspaper) wrote up a nice article about us:

Non-Theists attend religious services to benefit food bank

By Katy Adams, Staff Reporter

Publication Date: 02/19/2010

“Save a soul, put food in a bowl” and “Donate to charity and spare our souls” are two slogans that the Purdue Society of Non-Theists is using to raise money for charity.

From 9 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. today, the Society of Non-Theists will raise money for Food Finders Food Bank of Tippecanoe County, which they hope will help to raise awareness of the club.

The idea for the fundraiser, called “Send an Atheist to Church,” was based off Hemant Mehta, an atheist who sold himself on eBay to attend any church service at $10 an hour. The winning bid, $504, went to a non-profit charity, and Mehta wrote a book on the experience titled, “I Sold My Soul on eBay.”

The fundraiser has set out paper cups to collect donations. The cups are labeled with different religions or denominations, including cups for Buddhists, Methodists, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and a cup for general donations. A donor can donate to a specific religion, hoping that religion get closer to “winning.” All profits go to the charity and each domination will have society members attending their services.

As of Thursday, the Methodist church had the most donations.

Monya Anderson, a senior in the College of Liberal Arts and treasurer for the organization said that the club raised $135.31 for the Food Finders Food Bank on Thursday, and that the fundraiser has given them a chance to learn about other denominations and religions.

“It brings a lot of discussion (when people visit the table) ... (we) met a lot of people, (had) varied reactions,” she said.

Kimberly Tricoche, a senior in the College of Liberal Arts, visited the table because of the signs. She said that the organization’s efforts are creative and are helping a good cause.

“They are saying they are open to going to other churches. It’s a creative idea to send themselves to church (for charity),” she said.

Elizabeth Almada, a junior in the College of Education, disagreed, saying that the list is discriminatory to others faiths, as the only non-Christian religions named on the cups are Judaism and Buddhism. She said that as a campus event, it should be campus-wide, with one for each denomination.

“I’m all for donation, but it seems like a battle of the churches, kind of shows who cares and who doesn’t,” she said. “‘Come to my church. We raise the most money.’”

Anderson said the organization e-mailed different people, but some didn’t respond or weren’t interested. She said that the organization will continue to do the fundraiser in the future, either every semester or every year, to continue to raise money.

(I'm pretty sure the Baptists and Mormons are winning, maybe they weren't when she interviewed everyone)

I'm always happy when our events get covered by the news, but it's even more awesome in this situation. Hopefully even more people will stop by our table today and we can raise even more money. I wasn't even sure if we'd make 100 dollars, so I'm already elated.I was stuck on an airplane for most of yesterdays event, but the members who were at the table tried to fill me in on how it went. They said the most common remark was "Where are the Catholics?!" We tried so hard to get the Catholic church on campus to agree, but they kept being noncommittal and referring us to other people - thankfully most people understood that situation. Maybe now that they see how successful our event was, they'll join us for next year.

We also had questions like the young lady in the article, about why there were so many Christian groups. Short answer: Purdue has a lot more Christians. We asked the Islamic Center and they declined (though they were very polite and nice). Someone from the Muslim student association came by later in the day and told us to sign them up, so at least we have them now! The Hindu student association never replied. Other than those groups, there aren't really that many clubs or places of worship for non-Christian faiths. Someone asked about Taoism and Deism - show us where we can actually physically go, and we'll go there!

And one of the funnier responses through the day was actually from random atheists who walked by, not theists. We got a couple of glares from (presumably) theists, but atheists would stop and be offended. They thought we were a religious group trying to force atheists to go to church, not an atheist group being a little silly! Once we explained the situation, they would laugh about it. I think that illustrates the religious environment at Purdue - it is totally normal, common really, for religious people to go around trying to save us heathens in public.

I'll let you know how today goes!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Non-theist labels vs age

One of my readers asked if I would look and see if there was any correlation with age and the types of non-theist labels my readers used. Here you go (click it for a larger image):Sample size:
<20 = 68
21-25 = 139
26-30 = 103
31-35 = 54
36 - 45 = 61
46< = 42

I'm not sure the best way to test for statistical significance, and I'm too tired from my trip to figure it out, so let's just look at some general trends.

First, it seems like young non-theists use more labels than older non-theists. They had the highest percent of responders for every single term. One hypothesis as to why could be that young non-theists are still trying to figure out which labels best describe them, so a lot apply right now. It could also be that a lot of these terms have just recently become popular labels, and older non-theists don't identify with them.

The most glaring difference that I see is that young people love to be silly and call themselves Pastafarians. Oh, and that pretty much everyone hates the term Bright equally. No big surprise with either of those.

I'm not sure if I feel safe to make any more interpretations without some stats. Any older readers want to throw in their two cents?

Harvard update

I thought I'd give you guys a quick update about my trip to Harvard. First of all, my flight was...eventful. We were supposed to land in Boston at 4:20, but their airport was closed because of the snow. Instead we had to land in Providence, RI. It took over an hour to deplane since everyone was landing there and they were understaffed. I smartly grabbed a quick dinner, and then we reboarded at 7:20. ...We didn't take off until 10:20 because a plane was stalled on Boston's runway and no one could land. Yep, I got to sit on a plane for three hours. Fun stuff. Everyone was getting so cranky that they started giving us free alcohol, but at that point I just kind of went to sleep.

Other than that, Harvard was wonderful. The campus was absolutely beautiful. All of the winding old streets were a bit insane - how did it take so long for people to build cities on grids? The department was housed in the same building as the natural history museum, which was equally amazing from the short peak I got. Exhibits on global warming and evolution, shiny rocks and skeletons and every taxidermy animal you can think of!

More importantly, the people were great. I met with faculty and current grad students from 10 until 6. Everyone was intelligent (obviously) and super nice - they totally defied the stuffy Harvard stereotype. I learned all about the department, life as a grad student, living in Boston. Don't want to say anything more than that before I visit my other potential schools, though. Sorry! (Though as a fun side note, I met the professor who did the study that was in Nature recently on how running barefoot actually causes less stress and injuries - you may have seen it around the internet. He was wonderful!)

My potential advisor and her husband (another professor in the department) took me out to a very nice restaurant for dinner. Our conversation was everything you shouldn't talk about at dinner - sex, politics, and religion. They were really interested in what it was like being an evolutionary biologist and an atheist in Indiana (I included the Society in my resume, and they gave me major kudos for it). Long story short: I think I will be much more comfortable living in the east coast. Perk: No longer have to totally freak out about the professor finding my blog, since she'd probably agree with what I'm saying. Downside: What the heck will I blog about if I'm living in Liberal Land?

The flight back was kind of uneventful, except for Random Talkative Older Guy who talked to me the whole first flight (only 45 minutes, thankfully). Usually I don't mind chatting with strangers, but I was just so exhausted that morning. He was nice though, and surprisingly very pro science and evolution. He was joking about how he'd keep an eye on me for when I'm presenting my awesome research on tv - maybe one day!

(Oh, and since people were asking, yes, I'm pretty much in. Just going to come down to me saying yes or no!)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Guest post: Canadatheism: The Northern Perspective

This is a Guest Post by Jon, a reader from up North who wanted to shed some light on atheism in America's Hat. Er, I mean Canada. He writes over at his fiction blog, Our Man Jonesy. Take it away, Jon:

Canadatheism: The Northern Perspective
(Or: "Fundamentalism in Canada has been cancelled due to snow")

Greetings from the frozen wastelands of Canada! While Jen's away, I'd like to give you a general feel for atheism as it exists in the land of hockey and maple syrup. Those readers actually from Canada: feel free to sit back and talk amongst yourselves while I toss off pearls of Canadian stereotype to keep the Yanks entertained. If you're from elsewhere, just play along for now and you'll be able to tell your cocktail/hookah/opium den chums about how much you know about about foreign cultures.

If you're living in the 'States, you've probably heard of us before. We're the place that everyone threatens to move if the Republicans win another election. A lot of us speak French, we use the metric system, and if you ask us, it's not actually that cold out. And how's the religion like out there? Well, it's pretty mild, actually . Fiercely mild. If general polling is correct, up to a third of us acknowledge 'No Religion', and in a country with the population the size of the state of California, that's rather an accomplishment, if I may be so bold. It's at the point that the leader of the opposition party (Michael Ignatieff) can say things like:

“Some people will have no difficulty thinking human beings are sacred, because they happen to believe in the existence of God the Father and believe He created Mankind in His likeness … Far better, I would argue, to forego these kinds of foundational arguments altogether and seek to build support for human rights on the basis of what such rights actually do for human beings.”

Yeah, baby. That said, Canadian politics is a morass of apathy. Our parliament has been prorogued for the second year running, and our current head of government is a rather Christian individual. Nonetheless, we've really only got a few problems when it comes to openly displaying our ability to say 'Godless' in both official languages.

First, I'm going to blatantly appeal to stereotype here and point out the general level of pathological politesse present. We're rather polite about others' beliefs, and their prerogative to go on believing. We go so far as to apologize for how polite we are about it. One of the big reasons why religiosity is less of a visible factor in Canadian politics is that we're a mostly pluralistic nation. It's not just that we have the French Catholic crowd occupying Quebec, or the Spiritual traditions of our Aboriginals; Canada also has the largest immigration rate in the world. While a lot of it is from the East Asian countries- Vancouver, our Westernmost metropolis, has jokingly considered adopting Mandarin as its second official language- we also have a not-inconsiderable level of migration from the Middle East. The difficulty arises when the more hard-core religiosity they bring comes in conflict with our own "well, if you must, I suppose" social etiquette. We've shrugged off the attempts at Sharia law time and time again, but at the same time, we're far from making minarets illegal architecture. One of the central reasons why we're so at odds to talk against fundamentalist dogma in Canada is because we seldom talk about religion at all.
Another foot-hold for stronger theism in Canada is that our populace is scattered. We have a fraction-of-a-million people each in Montreal, Vancouver, and Calgary, as well as Ottawa and Quebec City; Toronto features an above-average population of 2.5 million. The rest is rural, and far from unreligious. Non-metropolitan religiosity is more notably strong in those populations living outside those few cities, to say nothing of the populated Maritime provinces. Even excluding that, only Vancouver might be said to be predominantly atheistic. Toronto's comparative migratory draw results in a higher population of transplants from religious areas, and Montreal has, as one of its prime attractions, a huge frigging cross on its namesake hill.

But what, then, supports the noticeable secularism in Canada? I would strongly implicate the disenfranchised Anglicans that made up a lot of Early Canada. Come on- we founded a church on divorce. Why carry on the tradition if we're on another continent entirely- though, in reality, we're still technically headed by the British monarchy, and have a person appointed to represent it. Perhaps more relevant is that level of politesse I keep harping out about (sorry if it's bothering you); perhaps one of the reason for the separation of church and state is precisely the 'I'm okay with it' pluralism that has such a hold on Canada; perhaps letting go of the gun-grabbing dogmatism that has infected other states just lets you see all the sides with equal fairness-- and in the end, you get the conclusion that theism is a rather silly idea from the get-go.

...I mean, SURELY it can't just be the [amazingly] good Canadian beer keeping everyone in a state of paralytic drunkenness, preventing extremism of any kind. The comparative poor quality of American beer might well be keeping you folks in the 'boisterous' stages of intoxication, thus giving rise to Megachurches, rednecks, and the frank need to satiate one's pastorly urges with some crystal meth and pay-per-screw man-love. Just a theory. Get better beer, America.

For other Canadian Atheist Resources:
Center for Inquiry:

Nota Bene: The author will not, contrary to stereotype, apologize for a belief in the general superiority of Canadian beers. There are, however, some notable American beers.

(American) Ed.: And there are some terrible
Canadian ones.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Endangered species condoms

No, not condoms for endangered species - that wouldn't exactly help their problem. These are condoms with endangered species on them.

Who would be behind such a crazy project? Biologists, of course! The Center for Biological Diversity are passing out these condoms to raise awareness about overpopulation and its effect on the environment.

...Ok, I seriously want these things. There are six to collect: a burying beetle, polar bear, snail darter, spotted owl, jaguar and rock frog. Must...collect...nerdy condoms...

(Via Skepchick)

Hang out with me in Seattle!

By the time this post pops up, I'll be on my way to the Indianapolis airport for my interview at Harvard. Wish me luck!

Don't worry, I have some posts ready during my absence. Though if you really miss me and you live near Seattle, I'll be there this Saturday the 20th. I have that Saturday to myself before my interview at U Washington on Sunday, so come hang out with me! I've made plans to meet up with two readers so far, and you should totally join us. We'll be meeting at the Pacific Science Center at 2pm, and then go to McMenamins for some delicious food and drinks at 5pm. If you're interested, please let me know in the comments so I can get a general idea of who's coming and how we should all find each other.

Hooray for Seattle! I have to have more than two readers there, right? ...Preferably who aren't axe murderers?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Australian PM: PhDs are a women's excuse to not have babies

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was recently giving a speech about the nation's aging population and the problems it will cause. Seems like a serious topic that needs discussing - but it got interesting when he met Nina Funnell, researcher and reporter.

Arguments were made about superannuation and the strain on healthcare. But there was a deeper message: young people (women in particular) are failing in their civic duty to reproduce. Apparently, gen Y is to blame for the inverted population pyramid.

There were hundreds of people in the room but only a handful under 30. As one of the under 30-crowd, I shuffled nervously, hoping no one would recognise me - and my empty womb - as the deeply unpatriotic and traitorous felons that we are.

After Rudd came off stage, he spoke to me and the few other under-30s (we had congregated for strength in numbers). He extended his points about the problems with the ageing population and the financial problems gen Y will incur when the baby boomers become pensioners.

At that point one of my friends introduced me, dropping in that I am completing a PhD. At this, Rudd rolled his eyes and in a terse voice lacking any sense of irony remarked that is the "excuse" that "all" young women are using nowadays to avoid starting families. Since then I've come up with numerous one-line retorts, but in the moment I just froze in shock.

...I can't imagine how a politician, someone who should theoretically be a master of political correctness and choosing his words carefully, would say something so horrendously stupid. Yep, women choosing to further their education is really just an excuse to get out their Ultimate Duty of Making Babies. Not because of, you know, the pursuit of knowledge, a passion for research, the desire to teach others, the excitement of discovery, the satisfaction of exploration, or the joy of personal fulfillment. Nope, it's because we don't want to patriotically pop out babies for the motherland.

Another annoying part is that multiple factors make many women feel like motherhood and academia just don't mix. How can you balance morning sickness with field work? How can you do lab work with dangerous chemicals that you're not allowed to use? How are you expected to write your thesis when you're taking care of an infant? These are all daunting challenges.

Are women getting their PhDs with the nefarious plan that they can use these things as excuses to avoid reproduction? Of course not. Plenty of women want to have children, but put it off because they feel it's impossible in the current academic environment. The solution isn't to stop women from getting their PhDs. What we need to do is develop ways to make motherhood easier for academics. Make day cares more available at Universities. Make pregnancy leave a viable option for grad students. Take pregnancy into account when evaluating publications when I woman is up for tenure. Encourage men to spend more time with their children, rather than assuming that's mom's job.

Many women have survived grad school and motherhood simultaneously because they had appropriate accommodations. This should be a cause Rudd can rally against: I mean, all he wants us to do is breed, right? He won't care if we happen to get a little smarter at the same time.

I literally screamed with nerdy glee



Seriously, this is freaking amazing. I just had biggest nerdgasm since I found out Dumbledore was gay or that Alan Rickman was doing the Voice for Marvin, the Paranoid Android. This is a thousand times better than my Darwin/Pokemon mash up. I'm just sad I didn't think of it first.

There goes eighteen more dollars from my wallet.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Blag Hag Census Results Continued

Next time I make a survey, I'm putting an "Other" option on every question. Seriously, nearly everything someone wrote in was insightful, heartwarming, or cracked me up so much that I probably scared my roommate with my intermittent laughter. That's why I think some of my favorites should get a post of their own, so I can address your anonymous comments.

But before I say anything else - seriously guys, you are all so fucking nice. Some of your comments made a tear up a bit. I started this blog as a fun hobby, and I never thought so many people would enjoy it, let alone see it as influential and important. I just hope that I can live up to your expectations! You all rock!
Just continue chronicling your journey and sharing your growth as you stumble towards intellectual maturity. I find your naivete and occasional hypocrisy both refreshing and nostalgic. Had I kept as extensive a journal when I was your age, I doubt I could be as proud of it as you will be when you are my age, looking back. You'll also be embarrassed as hell, but that's life. I really love your work.
Usually someone calling me naive and hypocritical would get me cranky, but I just can't in this case because I know it's so true. I already have things that I disagree with from my older posts, and it hasn't even been a year. My views on atheism were very different even just a couple of years ago when I was a freshman. I often make posts where I don't know the answer because I'm trying to figure everything out. And I know I'll be embarrassed when I read some of these again. I've kept a LiveJournal since middle school, and sweet Jesus - I went back and read some of my posts recently, and they were so freaking embarrassing. Seriously, you should all be glad that I don't finish every single one of my sentences with an emoticon anymore.
Don't video blog! Make people read!
A sentiment held by many readers, usually in all caps. I actually prefer reading, mainly because I can go at the pace I want. Skip parts, skim...can't exactly do that with a video. I honestly rarely watch tv or youtube videos - just isn't my thing.
Videotape yourself kicking all those chauvinistic trolls in the balls.
Hmm, okay, maybe I'll have to make an exception...
Okay, I know your busy so this is kinda harsh and all. In fact I honestly cant see you doing it but if you can by some miracle find some more time to blog even more regularly do that.

What really keeps me coming back to any blog, regardless of topic, is daily posts. I wake up and run to the computer and know there's going to be something new for me to learn about on BlagHag!
Oh great, because I didn't feel guilty enough when I skip a couple of days, haha. I'm not sure how much more I can post - sometimes I just don't have anything else to say, even when I have time. Quality over quantity, everyone!
Less focus on negative news stories. It was getting a bit depressing there, for awhile.
Oh man, I totally agree. The problem is twofold: 1. News coverage of negative stories is a lot better, so I see it and get linked to it a lot more often. 2. I usually have nothing insightful to add to positive stories other that "Yay, that was cool." I'll try to be better though!
Fix the bug that makes me enter comments twice (and no, I'm not even using IE).A 'remember me' function would be nice, save inputting name and URL manually each time. Get some spamtrap software, or at least delete shills and 'bots.
These are all annoying Blogger problems that I have little control of (I think?). If anyone has any solutions, please offer them in the comments, because I have no idea. Sorry! I'll try to be better about deleting spam, I've gotten a bit lazy.
I think you are better when you write about what you know; atheism, science and generalised social issues to do with your age/gender. While I sometimes enjoy your articles on religion/ Christianity/theology, I think that your knowledge on these matters is too influenced by the stand you have taken (being an 'out atheist' in an atheist club) and is sometimes prone to being quite shallow (sorry for being harsh, just trying to be honest).
I know theology isn't my strong point, which is why I generally don't discuss it. Whenever I talk about religion, I try to focus on its affects on society and individuals, rather than actual debates against theology. To be honest, debating theology just isn't interesting to me, and there are plenty of other blogs who do a great job at it. If I ever say something stupid, feel free to call me out on it.
I'm looking forward to seeing what grad school you get into and reading about your experiences there. Hopefully you will have time to engage the local community and blog about it like you have done while at Purdue. Take care.
A lot of people indicated that they were looking forward to me blogging about getting into grad school and my experiences there. Don't worry, I plan on continuing blogging, assuming there isn't some university wide ban on it (which would go into my decision...). Right now I don't want to talk about it too much, since I don't want my posts to possibly affect my odds of being accepted. Because you know, benign posts about grad school questions would totally scare professors away more than rants about religion. I may post a bit about it retrospectively, once I know I'm safe.

Speaking of rants about a religion, some people mentioned I get a little too cranky/mean when I'm ranting. An equal amount of people said they loved it and that I need to rant more. As a compromise, I will not change my level of ranting, though it may fluctuate monthly (hmm, I think I have a new statistics project...)
I think you're in a position to really apply feminism to science in both theory and practice. These two positions don't seem to overlap much in your commentary, and I find that a bit odd.
To be honest, I've been lucky enough to have a wonderful experience as a female scientist at Purdue, so I don't have many personal anecdotes to talk about. I definitely try to keep an eye out for relevant articles. Maybe I'll have more to talk about once I become a "real" part of academia, but hopefully not!
Focus a little bit more on feminism. There are a bazillion blogs out there and the online atheist blogging community needs a popular young female - of which you are no doubt qualified for.
Popular Young Female Atheist sounds like an awesome superhero. Give me a cape and I'm totally in. Seriously though, I think finding a niche is important, which is why I usually don't repost popular stories unless I have my own unique comment to make about it. A lot of people asked me to keep writing about feminism, and I definitely will!

A lot of people also mentioned that they enjoyed posts about the Purdue Non-Theists and other local atheist events. I'll definitely keep it up, no matter where I go - all of the schools I've applied to have active atheist groups. I think one of my niche's is being a young person on "front lines of the atheist movement," doing a lot of the actual activism rather than passive blogging or writing.
Aside from the crude suggestion of 'show us your tits'- I genuinely, as a man, appreciate a lot of the feminism displayed on your blog. It is novel in its approach thanks to its use of what I would describe as being 'sensibility', but perhaps I've simply been biased by radical elements of feminism and their blatant use of ridiculous appeals to emotion. The Sagan/Dawkins recounting of some descriptions of, say, Isaac Newton's Principia as a 'rape manual', or derisive reference to hypothesis as an 'invention of rich white males'. These people are farrrrr too polarizing in their approach, so hooray for the BlagHag voice of reason. Turning to freethought is such a comfort, especially when I find my self at a loss for words at a lot of the student initiatives at my university to favour in no uncertain terms the 'radical' or 'revolutionary' perspective-- in itself, is not a bad thing, but that it comes at the cost of a comprehensible and rational backing! Uch! Keep up the good work, Jen. You're an inspiration to the female atheists (especially the one I've been dating for the past 3 years!), and a great place to find an utter facepalming at the day's irrationalities. Kudos. Also: Show us your tits!

Can I check more comics 10,000 times? Love your art, Jen. Community building sounds neat too - we have all met very interesting people through your site, and that's just awesomeness. And, you know, sexy pirate stuff. Since you put it there. hurrrrr girl atheist has boobs hurrrrr
I really appreciate knowing there are guys out there who enjoy my feminism posts. But I think what I appreciate even more is guys who know how to appropriately use boob humor. I lol'd.
More sexy ninja outfit pictures; remember that you should teach the controversy so that everyone can make an informed decision. Only posting the sexy pirate outfit pictures is so one sided. ;-)
While I do have a sexy pirate outfit, I would only be able to pull off a shirt ninja, which wouldn't be very sexy.
Not really, just a thank you for your time helping keep us entertained and out of trouble. You know, if we didn't read this we may end up as satanists. Or worse, Mormons.
Eat plenty of Vegetables
You know, I really should. My eating habits are so bad. My parents never instilled good habits in me - we're a meat, potatoes, and corn family. I've been thinking of trying to drastically improve my eating and exercise habits this summer so I make it my routine when I "start over" at grad school. I figure if I don't get fit now, I'm going to doom myself to a sedentary, unhealthy life.
Personal suggestion: Do something with your hair! I know, I and vanity are not your thing. But take it from a guy who has had to intelligently critique his spouse's hair beyond 'it's fine, dear' for 20+ years. The lank, center-part, just let it hang doesn't do anything for you. Spend some time & money with a decent stylist & you could be a Lab/Pirate Goddess!
SO TRUE. I have always hated my hair. It used to be a giant frizzy mess, but years of fiddling with hair care products made it only a semi frizzy mess. I'm really low maintenance, so the idea of doing something more than blow drying my hair and brushing it doesn't appeal to me at all. I had bangs until I was 12, and I loathed them so much that I'm afraid to give them a chance ever again. As a result, I'm rocking the boring middle part. My hair is longer then usual now because I'm waiting to donate it to Locks of Love again. But if I have readers who are actually knowledgeable about hair and can suggest a low maintenance style that will turn me into a Lab Goddess, I will totally do it when I donate my hair.
Torture communion wafers, it worked for PZ. Or even better, write a whole series of really popular books, it worked for Dawkins.The wafer one is probably easier.
I think I'll go for the popular books one. Not only have I always wanted to do that, but it's also the option that's less likely to get me lynched.

And the winner of the night:
PZ Myers. Sorry, had to. :P
I think I would have been disappointed if no one did.

Again, thanks so much to everyone for their input! Some people had more detailed comments that are worthy of their own post, so I may pull them out in the near future.

Blag Hag 2010 Census Results

I want to thank everyone who participated in my Blag Hag 2010 Census! 467 people filled out the survey (before I closed it due to eagerness to crunch the numbers), which is absolutely amazing. I was expecting something like 50, but I guess you guys like data just as much as I do. Considering that I have slightly over 1000 subscribers (holy crap!), we did almost as well as voter turnout for the US Presidential elections! Feel special, or maybe depressed, depending how you interpret that.

Because I got a decent sample size, I actually felt safe doing some statistics and trying to interpret the results. Now, as a warning, it's been a couple of years since I took a statistics class. It is highly probable that I screwed something up, that there was a more appropriate test to use, that one of the first five commenters will correct me, etc. I think we can see some interesting trends here, but it's no scientific study. Also keep in mind these results don't necessarily apply to atheists as a whole, just the atheists who read my blog and like to take surveys. Take it with a grain of salt!

Before we get started, here is how I indicated statistical significance on graphs:
* P-value less than 0.05
** P-value less than 0.01
*** P-value less than 0.001
**** P-value less than 0.0001

As always, click the images for a larger, nicer version.
We had 335 males, 135 females, and 7 transgendered readers. This actually surprised me a bit. As you can see, male readers vastly outnumber my female ones. People always ask "Where are the female atheists?" and I usually reply "We're out here!" I know a lot of female atheists aren't outspoken enough to want to go to club meetings or be visible, but I would have thought there would be more equal ratios on a blog written by a female atheist that often talks about feminism. My ladies are still drastically outnumbered!

I have a couple of hypotheses.
  • Females hate filling out surveys (unlikely)
  • Male atheists currently do, in fact, outnumber female atheists.
  • Male atheists currently tend to read blogs more than female atheists.
  • My blog is new, so more females haven't found it yet.
  • This is a better sex ratio than other blogs. Who knows, maybe blogs like Pharyngula and Friendly Atheist have a 9:1 ratio.
Oh, and to my transgendered readers who thanked me for including that option, you're welcome! Can't forget you guys. Though I am going to apologize now - most of my analyses look for differences in responses between males and females, and your sample size was too small to work for any of my statistics. Sorry! Please don't take it personally.
Not surprising that most of my readers fall close to my own age (22). The one bit that surprised me was that I was expecting to have a grand total of two readers over the age of 30. Nothing against my older readers - I just still feel very young and immature in many respects, and I was surprised that so many "adults" would enjoy my blog. So, thank you! There we no difference in the age distribution of males and females.

Now, onto the cool stuff!
I think this result was so cool because it didn't surprise me. Many studies (and anecdotes) point to females having more fluid sexual orientations and more bisexual tendencies. Our results follow that pretty nicely, with the vast majority of guys considering themselves exclusively heterosexual. Or at least, that's how they reported their sexual orientation on the survey. Who knows how honest people are even when it's anonymous.

Oh, and one fun observation: My friends who responded tend to be gayer than my readership as a whole. I think I'm a bad influence on people. Maybe we should see how that chart changes once I get another year to recruit blog.

Favorite open responses:
  • "Science nerd" - The best sexuality ever.
Here readers were allowed to respond with as many answers as they wanted, hence the use of percentage instead of raw numbers. Unsurprisingly, "atheist" was the most common choice. The popular choices seem to be the positive labels - skeptic, humanist, secularist, freethinker - with terms with negative connotations not doing so well. And this supports my opinion that "Bright" comes off as a kind of douchey label that not many non-theists like, since it came in last.

The gender differences here are interesting. Men are significantly more likely to call themselves skeptics, freethinkers, and anti-theists. Anti-theists sort of makes sense, since I think some men are more likely to be aggressive and in your face about things (this does not mean aggressive female anti-theists don't exist). The other two completely baffle me, though. Women aren't using skeptic as much, even with the delightful pun of the Skepchicks? And...I have no idea about freethinker. Feel free to come up with your own hypotheses in the comments.

Another interesting thing to note is that men tended to list more labels for themselves than women did. Men used an average of 4.4 labels with a variance of 9.3, and women used an average of 3.7 levels with a variance of 5.7 (p less than 0.01). Of course, this could entirely be from the couple of terms that men like to use a lot more than women.

Favorite open responses:
  • "Awesome"
  • "Belief challenged"
  • "Human" - Two people said this, I liked it!
  • "Depends on my mood and whether I want to be annoying"
  • "Too lazy to be a secular humanist" - Ditto
  • "Shiny?" - I don't know, are you shiny? Do we have a Twilight vampire amongst us?
Moral of the story: get PZ to link to your blog repeatedly. Seriously though, it seems being linked to by other respected, popular blogs is the best way to get new readers and to retain them. To put this in perspective, Reddit usually gives me as many hits as a Pharyngula or Friendly Atheist plug, but those people don't tend to stick around. Getting linked to by a great blog is a level of quality control, since that blogger is saying that they like your stuff.

I wasn't expecting to see any differences here, but there they are! Is this because Pharyngula does have more of a male bias? And what's up with the ladies liking Google Reader suggestions so much? I have no idea, but thank you, Google Reader!

Favorite open responses:
  • "Girlfriend read occasional blog posts to me" - Aw, oddly sort of cute/cool!
  • "Divine Ordinance, a.k.a. Holy Handgrenade (I don't remember. Shhh..don't tell Jen)" - Divine Ordinance is an acceptable answer.
Women like posts on feminism a lot more than men - absolutely shocking! You guys better learn to love them, because they're not going anywhere, haha. On the flip side, I have no idea why men like posts about me attending local atheist and theist events more than women. Hmmm, maybe because I tend to post a lot of photos when I go...

Other than that, the topics don't surprise me. Politics is my least favorite topic to blog about since I don't feel as well read in that area, and apparently my readers don't love it either (not that they hate it, just that it's not a favorite topic). Everything else I enjoy blogging about equally, and readers seem to enjoy them equally. Lesson: write about what you like!

Favorite open responses:
  • "Reading about Jen's boobs" - Got this from multiple people, almost all of them from my friends. Can't exactly get annoyed, since I am the one writing about my boobs (seriously though, thought this was funny)
  • "The review of those wretched sex scenes were read aloud at a party I threw. Good stuff." - This is made of ultimate win.
A lot of the free responses said that they loved the blog the way it was and to not feel like I needed to drastically change anything to improve. I didn't consider this question an ultimatum or some drastic overhaul. I mainly wanted to know if 1. I should increase the attention I put on certain things that I already enjoy doing or 2. if I should start doing things I was thinking about doing. A couple of things:
  • Apparently you guys like my art! Thanks! It's something I always want to do more of, but a piece of artwork takes something like 6 hours, compared to a short bout of writing. You'll probably see a lot more art this summer, when I'll have a lot of free time.
  • On the flip side, you guys don't care about me making any money. Sadness. A gal's gotta eat, you know.
  • I've avoiding rigid Daily features (like PZ's Friday Cephalopod) mainly because that takes planning and I'm lazy. However, I may start doing a "List of all the random cool stuff I saw this week but didn't have enough of an opinion to blog about it" thing. But with a better title. Anyway, I amass awesome links on Google Reader, so it wouldn't be too hard to post them here.
  • Yeaaah, don't hold your breath on the videoblogging. I don't own a webcam/videocamera and I hate watching myself on video. Oh, and apparently Australians have a raging hate-on for videoblogging since their internet service is so shitty, as multiple responders explained. Don't want to ostracize my readers down under!
Oh, and of course "More sexy pirate outfit photos" did really well, with men wanting them a lot more. Mind blowing. Maybe I can combine that with community building and contests, and make you send me sexy pirate photos of yourself! Much better than photos of me, right? ...Right?

I'm saving the final open response suggestions for the next post, since this post is already getting massive enough. What do you guys think of these findings? Have any comments or hypotheses? Do you have any other things you want me to look at (if certain terms are correlated with each other, etc)? Just let me know, and I'll crunch some more numbers! Data is fun!

Most bizarre sex-ed game ever

The Middlesex-London Health Unit in Ontario decided it needed a new way to reach high schoolers when it comes to sex education. And what do teenagers like more than video games? The result is quite possibly the most bizarre game ever, Adventures in Sex City.

Sounds awesome, right?! The game is just a True or False quiz about various sex facts. That part of the game is actually pretty good; it covers a lot of common misconceptions people have. But that's not the strange part. Let's meet the characters you get so select from the Sex Squad:
  • Wonder Vag "is a virgin, believes in true love and promotes abstinence until marriage." She's also a stereotypical blonde white girl.
  • Willy the Kid "was bullied as a child because he never grew taller tjem 4 feet, and is now sensitive to others who are different. He joined Sex Squad to prove size doesn't matter." Except that he's drawn with a giant bulging package, and is black. Totally not stereotypical. Oh, and apparently his special power is "massive rock hard strength." What?
  • Power Pap "is sexually active and is a strong believer in getting tested regularly. After a close encounter with a horrible STI, she was treated and now dedicates her life to testing and pap tests." She also looks Latino to me, but I'm going to assume I'm looking way too into this and it's not some message about race and sexual activity.
  • Captain Condom "was a scientist who constantly worked in his lab to create the perfect condom. Due to a freak accident, he is now half condom half man." Oh scientists. What's his special power, he likes people ejaculating inside of him?
But cheesy superheroes isn't the bad part. "In the dark of the night, Sex City is in panic because of the terrible Sperminator whose sole mission is to infect all citizens with various sexually transmitted infections." Gem over at Startled Disbelief has to best summary of this super villain:
The Sperminator is "a flying burly white guy in a Speedo and Mexican wrestling mask, with two giant penises for arms."...The Sperminator spews STI-infected sperm onto your character, causing your character to utter phrases such as "Eww, that's sticky!" or "Aagh, right in the face!"
While I still feel a bit confused after playing the game, I think Gem has a good point:
"That said, this isn't really a game. It's a true-or-false sex-ed exam with a really bizarre hook. I'm sure that's the point: the designers want it to be so over-the-top ridiculous that people are clamouring to play it even though it's a terrible game—and in playing it, these people might actually learn something. As terrible as the game is, I'm convinced that it will likely accomplish its goal."
The only thing the worries me is the way they portray the Sperminator. I know it's a silly game, but should we really be labeling people with STI's as evil, horrible people who are purposefully going around trying to infect others? People with incurable STIs are still able to have loving relationships.

Anyway, appropriate advice for Valentine's Day: don't be a fool, wrap your tool. And go play that silly game.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Feminism at Purdue

My day started off a little rough. I missed the bus even though I was about 10 feet from the bus stop (Thank you, Mr. Driver), the walk to campus was freezing, and I was lugging our Darwin Day merchandise and poster along. I was hungry and tired. I plopped down on the bench, ready to zone out for an hour until my class, when my friend Mike thrust a newspaper into my hands.


It was the Purdue Review.

For those of you who aren't Purdue students, let me explain. We have a sane, balanced, and fairly well done student newspaper called the Exponent. If the Exponent is Purdue's journalistic Superman, the Purdue Review is Bizarro. It's a extraordinarily conservative student newspaper that seems to take all of its ideology from Glenn Beck, Fox News, and teabaggers. Yeah, we're talking about some good stuff, here.

It's only printed a couple of times a semester (thankfully). To make it worse, one of my ex-boyfriends is on their staff, but that's a totally different story. If I'm in for a good rage, I'll grab a copy - but most of the time I ignore it to keep my own sanity. But now it was being thrust into my hands, and I couldn't ignore the title: POL 222: Women, Politics & Public Policy.

The Purdue Review was going to tackle feminism? You know I'm too much of a masochist to ignore that.

It's such a pile of crap that it's not worth picking apart: just go read it or Mike's critique, since he actually took that class. It's just some conservative student whining about how political science classes are so liberal and us liberals push feminism on everyone. He tries to make these arguments okay by asserting he's totally against husbands abusing their wives. What a stand up guy. I mean, how can you not like a guy who thinks this?
It need not be said that the points raised in the class are incongruent with traditional conservativism. The role of the mother has always been to take care of her family and maintain the household. Even in nature, the young need to be with the mother for a certain amount of time before they can go about on their own.
Dear Tyler Martin, if someone ever invents a time machine, I will pay out of my pocket for you and all of your conservative friends to zoom back to 1900, so you won't have to worry about us wandering out of the kitchen or depriving you of our baby making machinery.

Anyway, after reading that annoyance, I had to go get some more change for the Darwin Day sale. As I was passing through the Stewart Center heading towards the bank, there were a bunch of tables set up for Valentine's Day: Roses for sale, singing telegrams, creative writing majors selling love poetry (loved that idea). I was kind of oblivious, but someone stuffed a piece of paper in my hand.

"Happy Valentine's Day!"

"You too," I mumbled, continuing to walk by. I peered down at the paper in my hand and stopped dead in my tracks.FEMINISTS?!?!

I literally walked backwards a couple steps to the table.

"There's a feminist group at Purdue?! When did this happen?!" I asked the young lady who had handed me the valentine.

"Recently. Hey, you're Jen, right? From the Non-Theists? I know you, but you don't know me, because I don't really come to actual meetings. Sorry if that's kind of weird." Oddly enough, this happens so frequently that it's no longer weird to me.But I seriously can't explain how excited I was. During my freshman year I was a member of Purdue's chapter of the National Organization for Women. We did lots of awesome events, my favorite being Sex on the Mall, a giant sex ed fair on Memorial Mall. The group fell apart when the president graduated, and I've been severely lacking in my feminism ever since.

Am I going to have time to go to meeting for a new club in the final months before I graduate? Maybe, but probably not. But the mere presence of this club means so much to me, especially after reading some anti-feminist bullshit. It was serendipitous. To see seven awesome looking ladies happily passing out sex ed information and condoms as valentines totally made my day. Oh, and apparently they liked my feminist glee so much that they gave me another valentine. Woo, double the fun.

So keep up the awesome work, Feminist Action Coalition for Today! Purdue needs your voice on campus. (Though hurry up and get a website so I easily send oodles of people your way!)

Happy Darwin Day!

Happy Darwin Day, everyone! This year the Society of Non-Theists had a fairly simple event, since we have so much other stuff going on. We just had our annual Darwin Fish fundraiser selling cool evolution oriented merchandise.
We sold a lot throughout the day, and made about 150 dollars! Woot! Now we can spend even more money on pizza. And the club members rejoice.

Of course, I'm not too surprised that our fundraiser did well. It does well every year, especially since we hold it in the LILY, the biology building.
I mean, can't you just tell that's the biology building, with that artwork in the background? The hands of God coming out of clouds and creating the first cells is totally a biologically sound theory...right?

Regardless of artwork that annoys the biologists, it was a good day for evolution. I saw a random person wearing a Happy Birthday Darwin pin, which made me super happy. I also got to briefly teach my honors freshman class about evolution! We're learning about mutations and selecting bacteria that can survive in certain environments, so it was somewhat relevant. The professor asked if I would explain evolution to them, since I like it so much.

I have to say, I was really impressed. Everyone already understood the basics of the theory without the misconceptions. I specifically wore my Darwin Athletic Club: Survival of the Fittest t-shirt and asked them why it wasn't really correct, and they got it right: that strength and endurance doesn't necessarily mean an individual is fit - it's reproduction that matters. They also asked extra questions about epigenetics and kin selection. I was really impressed for freshmen! The intro biology class has been updated since I last took it, and is a lot more evolution heavy - looks like people are actually understanding it now!

Not sure anything can make Darwin Day better than teaching our future scientists about evolution.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Send an Atheist to Church

Next week the Society of Non-Theists at Purdue University will be having a fun charity event: Send an Atheist to Church. People will have the opportunities to raise money for charity and save our souls at the same time! How neat is that? Here's all the relevant information, which can also be found on the Facebook event page (please spread the word!):
Thursday 2/18 & Friday 2/19
9:00 am to 4:30 pm
UNION ground floor tables (by Zia Juice & Starbucks)

The main goal of this event is to come up with a creative idea to raise money for a charity that everyone can agree is very important in our community. We also want to show that non-theists are open minded about religious ideas, and that we're willing to learn more about other people's faith. The way it works is as follows:

1. Make a cash donation - ALL proceeds go to Food Finders Food Bank of Tippecanoe County.
2. Choose what denomination of religious services you want us atheists to attend.
3. The more money donated in a denomination's name, the more visits it receives.

Currently participating denominations include:
Baptist (Faith Baptist Church)
Episcopalian (Chapel of the Good Shepard)
Orthodox (Saint Alexis Orthodox Church)
United Methodist (Wesley Foundation)
Judaism (Purdue Hillel)
Buddhists (Purdue Buddhist Society)

If you see certain religions missing from our list and you know a place of worship (in the Lafayette area) that would like to participate, please let us know before Thursday and we will ad them to the list! The more, the merrier! It doesn't have to be a Christian denomination - "Church" is used just for a catchy title.

Inspired by Hemant Mehta's book, I Sold My Soul on eBay
Anyone can donate, regardless if they're a Purdue student, a member of a participating church, etc. If you can't physically come to make a donation during the listed times, you can also make a check out to Food Finders Food Bank (be sure to note what denomination it's going toward!) and mail it to:
The Society of Non-Theists
Stewart Center, Box #566
128 Memorial Mall
West Lafayette, IN 47907-2034
So if you really want me to go visit the Baptist church or something, send a check! Not only will it tickle me pink because it's going to a good cause, but you'll get a blog post out of every church service I have to attend.

This is our first year trying out this event, so I hope it goes well. We've had a little trouble getting churches to participate - a couple outright said no, but most are unresponsive. Hopefully if this is successful this year and we prove this isn't some nefarious plan to interrupt their services, more places will trust us next year. I have to say, I'm really excited. I've never really been to church, and I'm curious to see what it's like.

So, go spread the word! Donate! Wish us luck!

Woman's Last Stand

I know my 10 Most Sexist Super Bowl Ads post got quite a bit of attention. And by "bit of attention" I mean hordes of anonymous trolls calling me a fat, ugly, lonely, humorless, overreacting, man-hating lesbian who needs to either get back in the kitchen or get back to blogging about topics that don't make people uncomfortable. These comments really don't phase me, since 1) Obvious trolls crack me up, 2) Misogynistic comments prove my point, and 3) My lesbian friends are super awesome, so I take that as a compliment.

To all of you who actually left civil and enlightening comments, whether they agreed or disagreed with me, I thank you.

Anyway, since the internet is way too serious of a place sometimes, I figured I would share this spoof of the Dodge Charger ad:

I'd put a bet on how many comments it'll take for someone to call me a hypocritical misandrist*, but I just ruined that by stating it here, didn't I? Oops.

*Sexism is bad, regardless if it's targeted toward women or men. I'm not sure how many times I need to say that. Maybe I should put that in big bold letters above my banner for newcomers, so they don't shit bricks every time I blog about sexism. Of course, watching them shit bricks is kind of fun.

Take the Blag Hag 2010 Census!

I like data. No, really. Whenever there's something I can measure or perform statistics on, I do. I like to graph my weight over time, find correlations between silly variables like doucheyness vs. time spent dating a guy, and create networks that diagram which of my friends have kissed each other (it's a frightening web).

Don't worry, you don't have to make out with anyone against your will. But I would like you to complete a short survey!

I'm mainly curious about some of the general demographics of my readers, what you guys like about the blog, and what I can do to improve it in the future. I figure now is a great time to start collecting this sort of data. My blog is creeping up on it's first birthday, and I think it would be pretty neat to have a regular data set throughout my years of blogging. Wouldn't it be cool to see how it changes over time? I didn't ask as many questions as I could have because 1) I'm limited to 10 and 2) I didn't want to annoy you guys. But I still like getting a general idea!

Feel free to post comments and complaints in this post as well, though I have allotted you a free response question on the survey if you'd like to make a completely anonymous comment. I promise this isn't a nefarious scheme to sell your demographic information to some mega corporation - at most the data may be posted anonymously as a couple graphs in a later post.

So, please take the survey!

What we can learn from ancient human DNA

What can we learn about a person just from looking at their DNA? As our knowledge of genetics continues to grow, we may even be able to figure out what they look like. Research published in Nature looked at the genome of an ancient human using 4,000 year old hair that had been preserved in Greenland's permafrost. From looking at genes that cause known traits, we can learn a lot about his appearance.
  • Male
  • Type A+ blood
  • Brown eyes
  • Darker skin
  • Stocky body
  • Dry earwax
  • Shovel shaped teeth
  • Thick, dark hair
  • Tendency toward baldness
Okay, as an aside: Who is the lucky artist who gets to draw a reconstruction of an ancient human, or the feather patterns on dinosaurs? Is this someone's profession, or does a grad student do it? Maybe I can finally find a way to combine my art skills with my biology skills!

Anyway, it's pretty cool that we're able to learn about the actual physical appearance of someone just from their genes. Think about the implications in forensics cases when all that's left is tissue that's beyond identification. But that's not the thing that made this paper Nature-worthy. All of these genotypes are very similar to modern Siberians, which tweaks our current understanding of human migration. Jerry Coyne summarizes it well over at his wonderful blog, Why Evolution is True:
Oh, and the really interesting result is this: the DNA suggests that the individual had components of genes still present in East Asian and Siberian populations, but not found in modern-day Inuits or people from South and Central America. This suggests that there were two separate invasions of North America from Asia: the one that gave rise to native Americans, South Americans, and modern Inuit on the one hand, and that leading to the presence of Saqqaq in Greenland. Those latter individuals probably came across the Bering Strait, and then, hugging the Arctic, made their way eastward across North America and then to Greenland.

That conclusion is of course tentative because it’s based on only this single genome. Still, based on the sequence, and the tentative phylogeny showing that this individual’s ancestors split off from the ancestors of their closest living relatives (the Chukchis of eastern Siberia) about 5,000 years ago, anthropologists may have to revise their conclusion that there was one invasion of North America from eastern Asia around 18,000 years ago.

Very neat stuff! Though I would like to see a study using modern humans to see how accurate these sorts of predictions are. Take maybe ten individuals with various phenotypes, sequence their genomes, have the researchers try to reconstruct their appearance without previous knowledge of what they look like, send it off to an artist, and see how close we can get! I'm not sure what profound result this would show other than if this method is useful or not - just seems like a really cool thing to try out. Can't we do science for fun every once in a while?