Sunday, December 22, 2013

Quote of the Day: Kierkegaard's Calling

"So I sat there and smoked my cigar until I fell into a reverie. Among others I recall these thoughts. You are getting on, I said to myself, and are becoming an old man without being anything, and without really taking on anything. Wherever you look about you on the other hand, in literature or in life, you see the names and figures of the celebrities, the prized and acclaimed making their appearances or being talked about, the many benefactors of the age who know how to do favours to mankind by making life more and more easy, some with railways, others with omnibuses and steamships, others with the telegraph, others through easily grasped surveys and brief reports on everything worth knowing, and finally the true benefactors of the age, who by virtue of thought make spiritual existence systematically easier and yet more and more important. And what are you doing?

Here my soliloquy was interrupted, for my cigar was finished and a new one had to be lit. So I smoked again, and then suddenly this thought flashed through my mind: You must do something, but since with your limited abilities it will be impossible to make anything easier than it has become, you must, with the same humanitarian enthusiasm as the others, take it upon yourself to make something more difficult. This notion pleased me immensely, and at the same time it flattered me to think that I would be loved and esteemed for this effort by the whole community, as well as any. For when all join together in making everything easier in every way, there remains only one possible danger, namely, that the ease becomes so great that it becomes altogether too easy; then there will be only one lack remaining, if not yet felt, when people come to miss the difficulty. Out of love for humankind, and from despair over my embarrassing situation, having accomplished nothing, and being unable to make anything easier than it had already been made, and out of a genuine interest in those who make everything easy, I conceived it as my task everywhere to create difficulties."

- Søren Kierkegaard, writing as Johannes Climacus, in Concluding Unscientific Postscript, as translated by Alastair Hannay. (2009). Cambridge University Press. 156-157.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Quote of the Day: Nelson Mandela on Consensus Leadership

"Letters advising these chiefs and headmen of a meeting were dispatched from the regent, and soon the Great Place became alive with important visitors and travelers from all over Thembuland. The guests would gather in the courtyard in front of the regent's house and he would open the meeting by thanking everyone for coming and explaining why he had summoned them. From that point on, he would not utter another word until the meeting was nearing its end.

Everyone who wanted to speak did so. It was democracy in its purest form. There may have been a hierarchy of importance among the speakers, but everyone was heard, chief and subject, warrior and medicine man, shopkeeper and farmer, landowner and laborer. People spoke without interruption and the meetings lasted for many hours. The foundation of self-government was that all men were free to voice their opinions and equal in their value as citizens. (Women, I'm afraid, were deemed second-class citizens.)

A great banquet was served during the day, and I often gave myself a bellyache by eating too much while listening to speaker after speaker. I noticed how some speakers rambled and never seemed to get to the point. I grasped how others came to the matter at hand directly, and who made a set of arguments succinctly and cogently. I observed how some speakers used emotion and dramatic language, and tried to move the audience with such techniques, while other speakers were sober and even, and shunned emotion.

At first, I was astonished by the vehemenceand candorwith which people criticized the regent. He was not above criticismin fact, he was often the principal target of it. But no matter how flagrant the charge, the regent simply listened, not defending himself, showing no emotion at all.

The meetings would continue until some kind of consensus was reached. They ended in unanimity or not at all. Unanimity, however, might be an agreement to disagree, to wait for a more propitious time to propose a solution. Democracy meant all men were to be heard, and a decision was taken together as a people. Majority rule was a foreign notion. A minority was not to be crushed by a majority.

Only at the end of the meeting, as the sun was setting, would the regent speak. His purpose was to sum up what had been said and form some consensus among the diverse opinions. But no conclusion was forced on people who disagreed. If no agreement could be reached, another meeting would be held. At the very end of the council, a praise-singer or poet would deliver a panegyric to ancient kings, and a mixture of compliments to and satire on the present chiefs, and the audience, led by the regent, would roar with laughter.

As a leader, I have always followed the principles I first saw demonstrated by the regent at the Great Place. I have always endeavored to listen to what each and every person in a discussion had to say before venturing my own opinion. Oftentimes, my own opinion will simply represent a consensus of what I heard in the discussion. I will always remember the regent's axiom: a leader, he said, is like a shepherd. He stays behind his flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realize that all along they are being directed from behind."

— from Chapter Three of Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela's autobiography

Monday, December 9, 2013

Recipe: Orange Anise Wheels

Tonight's recipe comes from Baking Artisan Bread by Ciril Hitz. These orange-tastic rolls are always a big hit!

Special Ingredients

You'll need two things that might not be carried by your grocer: candied orange peels and orange blossom water. These are magical ingredients you can't leave out! For the candied peels, I recommend making your own a day or three ahead of time:

Check grocers (Ideal Grocery has it, for my local friends) or world market stores for "orange blossom water" or "orange flower water." One bottle can last a long time, since it works in small amounts much like a spice.


172g bread flour [1 1/3 cups]
110g water (75F) [1/2 cup]
11g instant yeast [4 tsp]

Combine the above, but don't knead past that. Let it rest for half an hour or until roughly doubled.

Full Dough

518g bread flour [3 2/3 cups]
78g sugar [1/3 cup]
41g honey [2 tbsp]
64g vegetable oil [1/3 cup]
14g salt [2 1/2 tsp]
30g water (70F) [3 tbsp]
150g eggs [3 eggs]
50g egg yolks [2 yolks]
+ the sponge.

Knead until dough window.

Magic Ingredients

29g orange blossom water [2 tbsp]
82g candied orange peel [1/2 cup]
7g anise seeds [2 tsp]

Slowly add these to the kneaded dough. If you feel like you must have made some kind of terrible mistake at this point, keep going. It's always like that.

Once the special ingredients are well incorporated, let it rest for an hour or until roughly doubled.


Divide the dough into 100g balls, then let these rest for twenty minutes. Put parchment paper in a baking sheet, then smoosh down half of the dough balls on the sheet and cut five slits in each one from the outside to halfway toward the center. (Repeat for a second baking sheet if you have one, or just do this again after the first batch finishes.)

Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for 45 minutes. Preheat oven to 360F.

Bake & Finish

Bake until internal temperature reaches 200F. Outsides will be golden brown. This takes about twelve minutes. Brush tops with melted butter and roll in sugar. Enjoy!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Quote of the Day: Barack Obama on Special Interests

"I've never been entirely comfortable with the term 'special-interests,' which lumps together ExxonMobil and bricklayers, the pharmaceutical lobby and the parents of special-ed kids. Most political scientists would probably disagree with me, but to my mind, there's a difference between a corporate lobby whose clout is based on money alone, and a group of like-minded individualswhether they be textile workers, gun aficionados, veterans, or family farmerscoming together to promote their interests; between those who use their economic power to magnify their political influence far beyond what their numbers might justify, and those who are simply seeking to pool their votes to sway their representatives. The former subvert the very idea of democracy. The latter are its essence."

— Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, 2006, p. 116.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Quote of the Day: Barack Obama on Reading Critically

A 1950 edition.
‘“Sister Regina,” Marcus said. “You know Barack, don’t you? I’m trying to tell Brother Barack here about this racist tract he’s reading.”

He held up a copy of Heart of Darkness, evidence for the court. I reached over to snatch it out of his hands.

“Man, stop waving that thing around.”

“See there,” Marcus said, “Makes you embarrassed, don’t it—just being seen with a book like this. I’m telling you, man, this stuff will poison your mind.” He looked at his watch. “Damn, I’m late for class.” He leaned over and pecked Regina on the cheek. “Talk to this brother, will you? I think he can still be saved.”

Regina smiled and shook her head as we watched Marcus stride out the door. “Marcus is in one of his preaching moods, I see.” I toss the book in my backpack.

“Actually, he’s right,” I said. “It is a racist book. The way Conrad sees it, Africa’s the cesspool of the world, black folks are savages, and any contact with them breeds infection.”

Regina blew on her coffee. “So why are you reading it.”
“Because it’s assigned.” I paused, not sure if I should go on. “And because—“

“And because the book teaches me things,” I said. “About white people, I mean. See, the book’s not really about Africa. Or black people. It’s about the man who wrote it. The European. The American. A particular way of looking at the world. If you can keep your distance, it’s all there, in what’s said and what’s left unsaid. So I read the book to help me understand just what it is that makes white people so afraid. Their demons. The way ideas get twisted around. It helps me understand how people learn to hate.”’

— Barack Obama recounting a college experience in Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Quote of the Day: Ken Follett On Writing Outside Genre

"Nothing happens the way you plan it.

A lot of people were surprised by The Pillars of the Earth, including me. I was known as a thriller writer. In the book business, when you have had a success, the smart thing to do is write the same sort of thing once a year for the rest of your life. Clowns should not try to play Hamlet; pop stars should not write symphonies. I should not have risked my reputation by writing something out of character and overambitious.

What’s more, I don’t believe in God. I’m not what you would call a spiritual person. According to my agent, my greatest problem as a writer is that I’m not a tortured soul. The last thing anyone would have expected from me was a story about building a church.

So Pillars was an unlikely book for me to write - and I almost didn’t. I started it, then dropped it, and did not look at it again for ten years.

This is how it happened..."

— Ken Follett, in the 1999 Introduction to The Pillars of the Earth.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

How We Know Abstinence-Only Education Doesn't Work

Abstinence-only education does not reduce teen pregnancy. If it did, decades of research would have demonstrated this many times over. Instead, research results have been overwhelmingly inconclusive or the opposite of what its advocates would like to see.

A method of "education" characterized by limiting what is taught had better yield clear practical benefits. At least then there might be a trade-off between knowledge and behavior.

The Rise of Abstinence-Only Education In the United States

Federal funding for abstinence-only programs began in 1982 with the Adolescent Family Life Act, which was part of the previous year's omnibus spending bill (blue "AFLA" line on the chart below). This sent millions of dollars annually to programs aimed at preventing "adolescent sexual activity and adolescent pregnancy." These programs were encouraged to partner with "religious and charitable" organizations, which led to such a degree of religious involvement that a case went up to the Supreme Court by 1988. In Bowen v. Kendrick (487 U.S. 589), the Court decided that the Act was not unconstitutional on its face, but did note that there appeared to be "impermissible" specific applications, which it called for other courts to examine.

In 1998, a major welfare reform dramatically increased funding for abstinence-only programs (red "Title V" line on chart below). This bill defined an abstinence education program as one which:
  1. Has as its exclusive purpose, teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity
  2. Teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school age children
  3. Teaches that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems
  4. Teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity
  5. Teaches that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects
  6. Teaches that bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society
  7. Teaches young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increases vulnerability to sexual advances
  8. Teaches the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity
In 2001, additional federal funding began flowing from the Community Based Abstinence Education program (purple "CBAE" line on the chart below). The overall progression has been from low funding in the 80s and early 90s, medium funding in the late 90s, peak funding in the 00s, and back down to medium funding through at least 2014, thanks to $50 million per year allocated as part of the Affordable Care Act. In other words, the red line holds steady for three more years than this chart depicts:


Two decades and well over a billion tax dollars later, there is no scientific evidence that programs matching the 8-point definition are effective at reducing teen pregnancy.

An Official Investigation

As part of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, Congress authorized funds for a scientific study of Title V abstinence-only programs. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) contracted this study out to Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. After years of study, Mathematica submitted its final report to HHS in April, 2007:

To maximize the opportunity for positive, reliable results, this study focused on four school programs that were especially intensive and could be especially well documented:
"All programs offered more than 50 contact hours and lasted for one or more school years, making them relatively intense among programs funded by the Title V, Section 510 grant." (Trenholm, 2007, p. 2)

"These four programs are called 'impact sites' because they had program features and staff capable of supporting a rigorous, experimental-design impact evaluation." (ibid., p. 7)
Over twelve-hundred students were involved in these four programs, with over eight-hundred students in control groups. To measure differences over time, follow-up surveys were given from 42 to 78 months after the surveys given at the beginning of each program (ibid., p. 19). It was just the sort of broad-but-detailed study that would have stood up to scrutiny from critics of abstinence-only education. Some conclusions:
"None of the individual programs had statistically significant impacts on the rate of sexual abstinence, whether measured as either always remaining abstinent or being abstinent during the last 12 months." (ibid., p. 30)

"Program and control group youth also did not differ in the number of partners with whom they had sex." (ibid., p. 31)

"Programs did not affect the age at which sexually experienced youth first engaged in sexual intercourse" (ibid., p. 31)

"Forty percent of program group youth reported that they expected to abstain from sex until marriage compared with 37 percent of control group youth, a difference that is not statistically significant" (ibid., p. 32)

"Across the individual programs, estimated impacts on unprotected sex, measured either at first intercourse or in the last 12 months, were likewise small and statistically insignificant" (ibid., p. 34)

"Ten percent of youth in both the program and control groups reported having been pregnant or gotten someone pregnant, and roughly half of them (five percent overall) reported that they had had a baby." (ibid., p. 35)

"[P]rograms raised the proportion of youth who reported that condoms never prevent HIV from an estimated 17 to 21 percent; the proportion who reported that condoms never prevent chlamydia and gonorrhea from an estimated 14 to 20 percent; and the proportion who reported that condoms never prevent herpes and HPV from an estimated 15 to 23 percent." (ibid. p. 46)
Yikes! These golden examples of abstinence-only education programs failed to alter behaviors or even attitudes. They did, however, increase the number of teens who believed condoms were useless for STI protection.

State Studies

A number of states have run evaluations on their own abstinence only programs. Unfortunately, these state studies haven't generally been models of scientific rigor. No control group, or no follow-up, or both! Although abstinence-only education failed to come out looking good in any of the studies, opponents of abstinence-only education should not rely on desired results that come from shoddy methods. Advocates for Youth put together a summary of these state studies here:

Five Years of Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Education: Assessing the Impact

Two of these studies did include both a control group and a follow-up. California's 17-months-later follow-up found that program students were no less likely than control students to have become sexually active, pregnant, or infected (Kirby, 1997). The program was cancelled based on these results. Missouri's smaller study had similar findings (Hauser, 2004).

Abstinence Until Ready

In 2010 a rigorous scientific study came out that showed a positive effect for abstinence education:

Efficacy of a Theory-Based Abstinence-Only Intervention Over 24 Months: A Randomized Controlled Trial With Young Adolescents

But there's a catch. This abstinence program deliberately did not match up with federal standards for abstinence-only education:
"It was not designed to meet federal criteria for abstinence-only programs. For instance, the target behavior was abstaining from vaginal, anal, and oral intercourse until a time later in life when the adolescent is more prepared to handle the consequences of sex. The intervention did not contain inaccurate information, portray sex in a negative light, or use a moralistic tone. The training and curriculum manual explicitly instructed the facilitators not to disparage the efficacy of condoms or allow the view that condoms are ineffective to go uncorrected. The results of this trial should not be taken to mean that all abstinence-only interventions are efficacious. This trial tested a theory-based abstinence-only intervention that would not meet federal criteria for abstinence programs and that is not vulnerable to many criticisms that have been leveled against interventions that meet federal criteria." (Jemmott, 2010)
The study's authors suggested a role for this kind of modified abstinence education program: an improvement over federally-defined abstinence education in communities that will not allow comprehensive sex education. It still lacks much of the information of comprehensive programs, but at least it doesn't encourage false and fearful beliefs...which evidently don't help anyway.


Good news! Teen pregnancies, teen abortions, and births to teens have been falling:

Can this be attributed to abstinence-only programs? Perhaps the studies above are accurate within their particular contexts, but are missing out on big picture trends. If the states that require or emphasize abstinence-only education are generally the states with lower pregnancy rates, then it might be worth looking further into abstinence-only education. Someone did, in fact, look for this pattern.

Using information on state laws and policies in 2005, researchers assigned each state with relevant laws or policies a level from 3 to 0 (Stanger-Hall, 2011):
  • Level Three - abstinence-only education, according to federal guidelines.
  • Level Two - abstinence stressed, but discussion of contraception methods not forbidden.
  • Level One - abstinence covered as part of comprehensive sex education.
  • Level Zero - abstinence not specifically mentioned in sex education.
How did the states do?

So much for abstinence-only showing promise in the big picture. Here are comparison charts for pregnancies, abortions, and births (ibid.):

As far as teen pregnancy goes, abstinence-only education may actually be worse than sex ed that never mentions abstinence as an option!


Other issues aside, abstinence-only education does not improve teen abstinence. Its advocates should at the very least be seeking to reform it to be more like the "Theory-Based Abstinence-Only Intervention" mentioned above that went against federal guidelines and showed promise. Personally, I suspect the focus on postponing all sex until marriage is so unrealistic (and not even a worthy ideal) that teen audiences are lost to the positive message that it's OK to wait until both people are ready to make a considered, responsible choice.


Kirby, D., Korpi, M., Barth, R.P., Cagampang, H.H. (May/June 1997). The impact of the postponing sexual involvement curriculum among youths in California. Family Planning Perspectives, 29(3). Retrieved from

Hauser, D. (2004) Five years of abstinence-only-until-marriage education: Assessing the impact. Retrieved from

Jemmott, J.B., Jemmott, L.S., Fong, G.T. (2010) Efficacy of a theory-based abstinence-only intervention over 24 months: A randomized controlled trial with young adolescents. Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 164(2), 152-159. Retrieved from

Stanger-Hall, K.F., Hall, D.W. (October 2011). Abstinence-only education and teen pregnancy rates: Why we need comprehensive sex education in the U.S. Plos ONE. Retrieved from

Trenholm, C., Devaney, B., Fortson, K., et al. (April 2007). Impacts of four Title V, Section 510 abstinence education programs final report. Retrieved from

Friday, November 1, 2013

Monthly Picks

Promote literacy in your neighborhood...

Little Free Library. Small, community bookshelves that work on the honor system. If you're handy enough, you can even build your own and register it!

and overseas...

Books for Africa. An American nonprofit that (literally) ships books to Africa, and does so with high efficiency.

or while you shop...

Better World Books. A for-profit company that makes a donation for every sale, to Books for Africa or its other partners.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Recipe: Vanilla Custard

Hot, sweet cups.
Today's recipe comes from Martha Stewart's website:

Vanilla Bean Custard Recipe

The first time I tried it, my custard's top level was all rough and bubbly like the picture with the source recipe. The second time I attempted a smoother top by melting the sugar along with the hot milk mix, minimizing stirring to minimize air bubbles in the final mix. The result was indeed smooth on top, but there were noticeable bits of egg within the custard. Ew! The third time I made this custard (pictured to the right), I whisked together the sugar and eggs as originally instructed, then added a step of skimming the froth off the top. Best of both worlds! Take that, Martha.

Special Equipment

Four 6-7 oz ramekins.
A roasting pan.
Canning tongs (helpful to avoid scalding hands).

Prepare a Hot Bath

Place an oven rack about one-third up from the bottom, then preheat oven to 300° F.

On the counter, place ramekins in the roasting pan, then pour water into the roasting pan until the water level is about 3/4 up the sides of the ramekins. Remove the ramekins, cover the roasting pan, and put the pan in the oven to let the water heat up with the oven.

The White and the Yellow

In a medium saucepan, pour:

1 1/4 cups milk
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Begin heating this dairy mix with a goal of simmering. In the meanwhile, put the following into a mixing bowl:

6 large egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar

Whisk yolks and sugar together until smooth and frothy. The sugar granules will grind the egg yolks up, preventing any noticeable "bits of egg" in the custard. (Use the egg whites for something nice, like a breakfast burrito!)

Check on your dairy mix. When the temperature gets close to simmering, stir frequently to keep any milk from burning on the bottom of the pan. The original recipe said to "boil" the milk, but I know from yogurt making that simmering milk for a few minutes leads to better texture later and avoids any burned-milk taste. So do that!

Stir the simmering milk mixture into the egg mixture. For smoother custard tops, skim off as much of the froth as you can.

Not so frothy.

Happy Little Custard Cups

Ladle the goodness into your ramekins:

Burst the little bubbles if you can.

Then open the oven, slide out the roasting pan, take off its lid, and use canning tongs to place the cups in their hot bath. Take care not to get any water drops in the custard, as this has a much more noticeable effect than you might expect!

The reason for a water bath is to keep the custard cooking at a low 212° F (boiling temp.) and to keep the tops moist from the steam. This also means it's not important to rush to close the oven door again. It's the water, not the air in the oven that's important.

Start checking your cups after about 20 minutes. Tap the middle of one of the cups with a finger. When it responds like something other than a full-on liquid, they're done! At least...they will be done as they continue to cook from their own heat for several minutes. Don't wait for your custard look done in the oven, or it will overcook!

Poke. Poke. Poke.

Use your tongs to put the ramekins on a wire rack as soon as you can. Dust with cinnamon or nutmeg. Tastes great warm, or refrigerate for later!

Friday, October 25, 2013

Quote of the Day: Neil Gaiman on the Power of Fiction

"I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?

It's simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you've never been. Once you've visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different."

— Neil Gaiman, as quoted by The Guardian on October 15, 2013.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Home Science: Does Yeast Treat Glycerin Like Sugar?

I didn't think I would be covering women's health on this blog, but a question came up among friends recently that wasn't easy to answer with a simple web search:

Do personal lubricants containing glycerin increase the chance of a yeast infection?

The all-knowing oracle Google returns mixed easy answers:

Yes, it does...

No, it doesn't...

At this point, the smart thing to do is look for higher quality sources of information. Information literacy, etc. But why do that when I have such a good excuse to run an experiment in my kitchen?

The Setup

I set out two empty measuring cups and put "Sugar" and "Glycerin" paper labels next to them. In a separate glass, I prepared 112° Fahrenheit water. (From my yogurt making, I know this is a prime yeast-growing temperature.) I then poured half a cup of warm water into each measuring cup. 

In the "Sugar" cup, I stirred in one tablespoon of sugar. In the "Glycerin" cup, I stirred in one tablespoon of glycerin:

Ingredients: Glycerin 99.5% Anhydrous

Then, I stirred one teaspoon of active dry yeast into each cup. Utensils were kept separate throughout this process, of course. I soon saw clear results.

Sugar Cup

Horrifying if you think about the context of this post.

Glycerin Cup

The yeast is confused about why someone put it in warm water with nothing to eat.


Not all that tastes sweet is a yeast-infection inducing sugar. People are easily swayed by superstition. Kitchen science isn't as robust as journal science, so treat this like you would MythBusters.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Transgender Identity is Brain-Deep

A series of recent MRI studies have shown that trans women and trans men have key neurological characteristics closer to their own gender identity than their assigned sex, before starting hormone therapy.

Sexual Dimorphism in the Brain

Duck cross-dressing involves a lot of dye.
Sexual dimorphism (or two-form-ism) is about the non-DNA differences between males and females of a species. For many birds, as seen in the picture, coloring is the most visible difference. Viewing humans in similar clothes from afar, height and shape are decent, if unreliable clues. Aliens will probably have an easier time sorting out the ducks!

Not all sexual dimorphism is so obvious; some critical differences are internal. While early scientists were able to prove that boys are not actually made of frogs and snails, and girls aren't made of sugar and spice, some discoveries had to wait on more sophisticated equipment and analytical techniques. In this case: a type of MRI scanning called Diffusion Tensor Imaging, or DTI.

DTI allows neuroscientists to examine fine white matter structures of living brains. This is as opposed to the "gray matter" where the neurons live. (Gray matter is shown as orange in the illustration here.) The effects of white matter on cognition and memory is a relatively new area of research.

In 2004, a study came out that showed differences in the white matter structure of left handed vs. right handed people (Büchel et al., 2004). For this reason, studies looking for other patterns tend to exclude left-handed people (typical, right?).

In 2011, the journal NeuroImage published a paper called "Men and women are different: Diffusion tensor imaging reveals sexual dimorphism in the microstructure of the thalamus, corpus callosum and cingulum" (Menzler, 2011).

The green pixels in the image on the right show a "white matter skeleton" (not literal bones) that men and women share in common. The yellow pixels show places where men in the study had "significantly increased fractional anisotropy" compared to the women. In similar areas, the men showed "significantly decreased radial diffusivity" compared to the women. These are mathematical terms that you can read about elsewhere if you really want! The important thing to know is that these terms reflect differences in what the water molecules in our brains are doing. The same process is used to detect lesions and trauma-induced injuries, as well as to monitor degeneration over time from Multiple Sclerosis.

Click below for the full illustration from the paper:

Yellow highlights show increased fractional anisotropy in men, while the blue highlights show decreased radial diffusivity in men.

Transgender Men (Female-to-Male)

In the same month, the Journal of Psychiatric Research published a study (Rametti, February 2011) comparing:
  • 18 transgender men
  • 24 cisgender men
  • 19 cisgender women
All 18 transgender men were in counseling for transition, had displayed gender non-conformity even before puberty, and had not yet started hormone therapy (although all 18 did start hormone therapy after MRI scanning).

The results are complicated, but here is a revealing graph that compares fractional anisotropy in four key locations where cisgender men and women differ:

The line-with-a-dot between some pairs of bars indicates a high statistical confidence of a distinction. Trans men are measurably distinct from cisgender women in all four areas! Furthermore, trans men are only measurably distinct from cisgender men in one of these areas. According to expectations developed from a separate study of men and women (outlined above), transgender men are neurologically closer to cisgender men than cisgender women.

Transgender Women (Male-To-Female)

The same research group shortly carried out another study with:
  • 18 transgender women
  • 19 cisgender women
  • 19 cisgender men
Similar selection criteria as with the transgender men above. Result chart:

Again, the line-and-star comparisons indicate a statistically significant difference. In five of these six areas, transgender women who haven't started hormone therapy are distinct from both cisgender women and cisgender men. In one, a distinction from cisgender men was not demonstrated. According to the study authors, "The direction of the differences suggests that some fasciculi do not complete the masculinization process during brain development before the individual seeks treatments" (Rametti, July 2011).


These studies have shown that transgender men and women don't fit their assigned genders at the neurological level, and the natural direction of difference is toward their own gender identity.


Büchel, C., Raedler, T., Sommer, M., et al. (Sept. 2004). White matter asymmetry in the human brain: A diffusion tensor MRI study. Cerebral Cortex, 14(9). Retrieved from

Menzler, K., Belke, M., Wehrmann, E., et al. (February 14, 2011). Men and women are different: Diffusion tensor imaging reveals sexual dimorphism in the microstructure of the thalamus, corpus callosum and cingulum. NeuroImage, 54(4). Retrieved from

Rametti, G., Carillo, B., Gómez-Gil, E., et al. (February, 2011). White matter microstructure in female to male transsexuals before cross-sex hormonal treatment: A diffusion tensor imaging study. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 45(2). Retrieved from

Rametti, G., Carillo, B., Gómez-Gil, E., et al. (July, 2011). The microstructure of white matter in male to female transsexuals before cross-sex hormonal treatment: A DTI study. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 45(7). Retrieved from

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Quote of the Day: Jane Austen on Intellectual Parity in Marriage

Original 1813 cover.
"Had Elizabeth's opinion been all drawn from her own family, she could not have formed a very pleasing picture of conjugal felicity or domestic comfort. Her father, captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence had vanished for ever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown. But Mr. Bennet was not of a disposition to seek comfort for the disappointment which his own imprudence had brought on, in any of those pleasures which too often console the unfortunate for their folly or their vice. He was fond of the country and of books; and from these tastes had arisen his principal enjoyments. To his wife he was very little otherwise indebted, than as her ignorance and folly had contributed to his amusement. This is not the sort of happiness which a man would in general wish to owe to his wife; but where other powers of entertainment are wanting, the true philosopher will derive benefit from such as are given."

— From the opening of Chapter 42 of Pride and Prejudice

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Monthly Picks

Just one:

Recovering the Classics. Paperbacks, ebooks, and posters featuring alternate covers for classic works. Multiple designs per title, in most cases.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

When Librarians Go To War: The ALA War Service 1917-18

"[T]o make better men of the soldiers as well as to make better soldiers of the men."1
World War I lasted from 1914 to 1918, with the United States finally entering the war in 1917. In April of 1917, the American Library Association—a small organization at the time with a $24,000 yearly budget2offered to provide professional library services to U.S. military camps and to raise the funds to do so! By the end of the war, the ALA had collected millions of dollars and book donations, built over thirty camp libraries, and employed hundreds of librarians. More importantly, the idea ofand appreciation forfree library services was spread to every corner of the nation, even to communities far from early library strongholds like Boston and New York.

Today's libraries are well-established, but there are worries about public commitment to free library services. One lesson contemporary librarians can take away from the ALA's War Service is that tapping into public interests can enable services beyond what seems possible with the existing budget. Such initiatives can then boost community appreciation for free library services.

A Bold Proposal

Herbert Putnam, the Librarian of Congress, first proposed the idea of the ALA providing books to military men in a private meeting with an assistant to the Secretary of War.3 Between this meeting in April 1917 and the ALA's annual conference in June 1917, Putnam strategically promoted the idea and formed a committee.4 With this backing in place, he distributed the committee's report at the conference. The report (unsurprisingly) concluded that what the Association had before it was "an extraordinary opportunity."5 This sentiment was widely accepted and echoed. Soon afterward, Raymond Fosdick, the chairman of the War Department's Committee on Training Camp Activities, extended an official invitation. The American Library Association assumed responsibility for providing service to the nation's thirty-two domestic training camps.6

Bring Your Own Library

Each camp was populated by thirty-thousand to fifty-thousand soldiers, for a total of over 1.3 million potential readers.7 Government grants were not sought. Instead, the War Finance Committee of the ALA made plans to raise the money and collect supplies from private donors! The first step was to raise funds needed to run the main fundraising campaign. $50,000 was temporarily donated mainly from ALA's own resources, Baker & Taylor publishers, and the Rockefeller Foundation.8 These seed funds would be paid back from the main campaign, which had a goal of raising a million dollars. The Carnegie Corporation approved a $320,000 grant in September 1917 ($10,000 per camp). By April 1918, the million dollar overall goal had been reached, with an additional $750,000 beyond that!9

For a second fundraising drive, the ALA joined the YMCA and five other private organizations involved in training camp services for a United War Work Campaign. The ALA didn't sit back content with general advertising for the combined effort; library-themed posters and bookmarks were created and sent out in huge numbers.10 By a quirk of history, the first day of the United War Work Campaign turned out to be Armistice Day: November 11, 1918. The campaign raised $205 million anyway! The ALA's portion was 3.8 million, which allowed library services to continue until the ALA could hand off management to the various military branches in an orderly fashion from 1919 to 1921.11

The ALA ran a book collection drive over the same period as the first money drive. By June 1918, over two million donated books had been collected and sent to domestic training camps.12 Almost 300,000 had been shipped overseas, a riskier affair as several of the ships were sunk on the way by enemy submarines.13 Troops also received about five million magazines,14 not through ALA drives, but through a postal service program. Journals and magazines carried the following notice from the Postmaster General:
"When you finish reading this magazine place a 1-cent stamp on this notice, hand same to any postal employee and it will be placed in the hands of our soldiers or sailors at the front."15
Why bother with fundraising when books and magazines were being donated in such abundance? There was also a need to supply library buildings, pay librarians in key leadership roles, and purchase non-fiction (mostly technical) books not covered by donations.16 The ALA asked publishers to offer steep discounts on multiple copy purchases, and all major publishers agreed!17 After the Armistice, purchasing focus shifted from technical books to vocational literature. Camp librarians put together recommended reading lists on a variety of career areas and placed "Back to the Job" advertisements around the camp to market these services.18 In total, Carnegie and ALA funds were used to build forty camp libraries,19 typically including small living quarters for a librarian, which allowed long operating hours of 7 am to 10 pm every day of the week in most locations.20 The bulk of the fundraising and technical services work was, however, carried out by public librarian volunteers.21

The Subordinated Majority

Sex discrimination was strong at the beginning of the War, but became increasingly challenged as the draft pulled men out of their hoarded leadership positions. The library profession's composition as a whole was about four women to every man,22 but the ALA itself enforced an unwritten rule against women being paid for work in camp libraries. As protests to the ALA leadership and directly to the War Department grew, Herbert Putnam first falsely claimed that the ALA was only following military rules (as anyone could see by the women employed in private YWCA hostess houses). He then promised a greater role for women, but this was a transparent attempt to defuse complaints without actually doing anything. Finally, Putnam acted as if the protestors were disparaging the work done by the women who had been working in camp libraries (often running them in practice) without pay or status. He relented at last, gracelessly implying that he was only swayed by the voices of male librarians.23

By the summer of 1918, women were officially in charge of eight of the thirty-two camp libraries.24 Blanche Galloway of the Pelham Bay Naval Station was the first woman to be paid for directing an ALA camp library. In September of 1918, Ms. Galloway spoke at the New York State Library Association's annual meeting:
"The wonderful opportunities which the library has to help these young men from all stations and walks of life, the one great thing that makes it worth while is the fact that the library influence is a leveling up and never down. Every man who seeks help here is going to be able to do something better than he has done it before. This is the kind of democracy we are all proud to have a part in establishing."25
It's crazy to think the ALA had held back Galloway and other passionate librarians; it's inspiring to know she persevered for the sake of her "young men."


The increasing role of technology in early twentieth-century warfare made greater than ever intellectual demands on fighters. It was now "a war of mechanism and of exact science."26
"At one typical camp a single day's circulation included books on the following: French history, mechanics, topography and strategy in war, self propelled vehicles, hand grenades, field entrenchments, bridges, chemistry, physics, astronomy, hydraulics, electricity, medieval history, calculus, civil engineering, geography, American history, surveying, materials of construction, general history, masonry, concrete. About three-fourths of the books taken out were non-fiction."27
This should make it clear that relying on second-hand, outdated gift books from civilians would not have been adequate to the task of making better soldiers of the men. Camp librariesand especially overseas book distribution—also addressed psychological needs. Major General Glenn of Camp Sherman gave library materials credit for "producing contentment" in men drafted into the new environment of military life.28 Mystery and adventure novels were especially popular. The more elitist librarians liked to tell each other stories of patrons asking for high-brow literature, confident they were making better men of the soldiers.29 As mentioned above, camp librarians took on the role of occupational counselors toward the end.

Beyond reading material itself, libraries provided a quiet place to get away from the usual routine. According to one soldier at Camp Devens:

"Your alcoves are godsends. The barrack's social room in which 75 to 125 are talking and playing cards, where a piano and phonograph are rivaling one another, and where at any moment a basketball may knock your head sideways, is certainly no decent place to read, let alone trying to do any studying."30

Spreading an Idea

Support for the war effort was high, as shown by the generosity of the donors and volunteers who made the ALA's War Service such a fantastic success. Soldiers' need for reading materials would have been a good enough motivation by itself; but even from the beginning, the ALA had an eye on promoting the value of professionally staffed free libraries. In a paper handed out at the Association's 1917 conference, Frank Hill and George Utley said, "if we succeed in this emergency in rendering national service, libraries are going to be a national and community force as never before." Otherwise, libraries would be "looked on as weak, dreary, go-sit-in-the-corner affairs that are not worth public support."31

Public library services were familiar to soldiers from the more progressive, urban areas. This wasn't true for many soldiers from poor or remote regions. Camp librarians often had to explain that borrowing was free.32 The war brought everyone together, then sent them back with raised expectations. The War Service was, in a sense, a public library advocacy campaign in disguise.

Still, it's important to understand that the War Service's most clear-cut accomplishment was its direct effect on domestic military camps. Overseas support was relatively weak. The ALA's post-war "Enlarged Program" campaign was a failed, overconfident attempt to grow the Association's wealth and influence in the new style, but without the unifying effect of patriotic fever.33 Two federal bills which would have brought national support to library services fell flat in 1919, with more of the same in the 1920s.34 The ALA had caught a wave during the war and found that it couldn't do the same in peacetime. It would take more time and steady political alliances to bring about substantial nation-wide support for public libraries.35 The War Service years were an exciting time in U.S. library history that showed what can be accomplished by paying attention to current events and jumping at new opportunities. It was significant partbut only a partof a much longer process of transforming public library service from a luxury found in liberal cities to an assumed part of American life.

  1. Theodore W. Koch. War Service of the American Library Association (Washington, D.C: A.L.A. War Service, 1918), viii. 
  2. Arthur P. Young. Books For Sammies: The American Library Association And World War I (Place of  publication: Publisher, Year of publication), 10.
  3. Young, Books for Sammies, 10.
  4. ibid., 11.
  5. ibid., 12. 
  6. ibid., 13.
  7. ibid., 38.
  8. ibid., 20.
  9. ibid., 21.
  10. ibid., 23.
  11. ibid., 87.
  12. Koch, War Service, 18.
  13. Young, Books for Sammies, 63.
  14. Koch, War Service, 18.
  15. Committee on Public Information, "Regulation for Forwarding Magazines To Men At Front," The Official Bulletin (Washington, DC), July 18, 1917. 
  16. Young, Books for Sammies, 20.
  17. ibid., 27.
  18. ibid., 55-56.
  19. ibid., 25.
  20. ibid., 46.
  21. ibid., 94.
  22. ibid., 126.
  23. ibid., 34-35.
  24. ibid.
  25. N. Louise Ruckteshler. "Library Week at Lake Placid Club, September 23-28, 1918." New York Libraries.6, no. 5. (Nov. 1918): 134.
  26. Koch, War Service, vi.
  27. ibid.
  28. ibid., 16.
  29. ibid., 26.
  30. ibid., 27.
  31. Young, Books for Sammies, 19.
  32. Koch, War Service, 22.
  33. Young, Books for Sammies, 90.
  34. ibid., 97.
  35. ibid., 98.

Committee on Public Information, "Regulation for Forwarding Magazines To Men At Front," The Official Bulletin (Washington, DC), July 18, 1917.

Koch, Theodore W. War Service of the American Library Association. Washington, DC: A.L.A. War Service, 1918.

Ruckteshler, N. Louise. "Library Week at Lake Placid Club, September 23-28, 1918." New York Libraries.6, no. 5. (Nov. 1918).

Young, Arthur P. Books For Sammies: The American Library Association And World War I. Pittsburgh, PA: Beta Phi Mu, 1981.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Christian to Agnostic: A Short Explanation

[I'm making this the latest post because a family member asked over the weekend. This was originally posted here on June 11, 2012 and written around 2008.]

    During my last year at Iowa State University, I stopped believing Christianity — or anything like it — is actually true. This came at the end of several years of study which began with the opposite goal: learning how to show others that Christianity is true. Talk about backfiring! Instead of finding more and stronger justifications for Christian belief, I lost even my starting justifications. All remaining evidence was compatible with Christianity being an entirely manmade religion, so I concluded that's probably all it is. I drew the same conclusion about other religions. If there is a God at all, it's not one concerned with setting us straight on religious matters.

    I was raised in the Churches of Christ sect. Early on, I was under the impression that everyone in the world believed the same things I was taught in Sunday School. Why wouldn't I? Everything from Biblical history to theology was presented to me as a matter of uncontroversial fact. If someone didn't worship God, that was only an obedience problem as it is with kids who don't mind their parents. I accepted God's offer of salvation with unquestioning faith. I believed God had forgiven my sins and would raise me to live in Heaven with other Christians forever. Prayer, praise, and scripture reading were not a burden but a joy.

    That joy started to sour when I was sent to an interdenominational Christian high school. You see, the Churches of Christ teach baptism as an essential step in accepting salvation; they even refer to baptism as "obeying the Gospel." By contrast, all the teachers and most of the students at my new school believed that only faith was necessary to be saved. This meant most of the Christians at school had not obeyed the Gospel and were still on their way to never-ending torment in Hell. Yet these were not apathetic or rebellious people; many were clearly striving to understand and submit to God's will. How could people serving God to the best of their knowledge deserve eternal torment? And the more I thought about Hell, the more I began to question its justice. I realized that no human — no matter how monstrous — could cause as much suffering as an eternity of hellfire. For a long time, I didn't doubt the truth of any of this, but I did start to see the next world as a far greater horror than even the worst temporary evil in this world.

    Just as high school opened my eyes to divisions among Christians, college life put me in direct contact with a wider array of religious beliefs. I went from only hearing debates about the meaning of Bible verses to hearing people claim the Bible wasn't inspired by God at all. So I did what I always do when challenged: study up! I already knew the book of Daniel contained detailed prophetic descriptions of Alexander the Great and the kings who followed him, so I started looking into arguments from supernatural prophecy. I was confident I could show that the Bible was more than a collection of human writings. But it didn't take long for my confidence to turn into disappointment.

    Daniel was supposedly written in the sixth century BC while the Jews were exiled in Babylon. Among other things, it describes Alexander's fourth century BC eastward conquest and the fate of the empire after his death. Even without names, the descriptions match up with secular history too well to be a lucky guess. Or at least, they match until the 160s BC when the prophecies become much more elaborate…then go wrong. See where I'm going with this? Many Biblical scholars believe Daniel was written during the 160s BC as if it contained ancient prophecies leading up to the ongoing Maccabean Revolt. The author simply wrote history and current events disguised as prophecy, then got the future parts wrong. This is a mainstream view in the Catholic Church, probably because their Bibles still contain histories of the revolt, which happened during the mysterious "intertestamental" period as far as Protestants are concerned. I was disappointed in my own Bible teachers for failing to know or failing to tell me about any of this.

    I needed to find prophecy immune to date-based skepticism, so I turned to messianic prophecy. Figured I'd start with Matthew and look up Old Testament references as I got to them. Big mistake. It turns out Matthew had little regard for the context of his quotes. The original passages concerning "Immanuel," "out of Egypt," and "Rachel weeping for her children" were written about specific situations far removed from the Gospel plot. I was amazed to find that the first few pages of Matthew mistreat the Jewish scriptures so badly no one could fault a curious Jew for picking up a New Testament and setting it right back down a minute later. Are the other messianic prophecies merely less obvious impositions of new meaning on old scriptures? My studies were inconclusive. With Christian preconceptions, it's easy to see Jesus in the Old Testament. But without those assumptions, all "messianic prophecies" can be reasonably understood as merely human Jewish hopes. For example, the servant described in Isaiah 53 can be understood as religiously faithful Jews who suffered through the Babylonian exile along with the unfaithful Jews who brought about the judgement. As a reward and justification for their suffering, God would end the exile and set Israel above all other nations forever. The exile ended, but the rest proved too optimistic. Later Jews reinterpreted the passage as a future event, then Christians used it to build a theology to justify the suffering of Jesus on the cross. This naturalistic interpretation is strongly in line with the overall historical context of Isaiah 40-55. I eventually had to give up on using prophecy to argue for a supernatural Bible.

    What would it take to show the truth of Christian belief over alternatives? Critical evidence, i.e. evidence which is compatible with Christian belief but not compatible with alternative beliefs. Take the book of Daniel. It fails to be critical evidence because it can be explained as history rather than amazing prophecy. However, Daniel would be critical evidence if compelling, secular evidence were found that Daniel's prophecies actually were written in the sixth (not the second) century BC. Skeptics who acknowledge the uncanny accuracy of Daniel between those centuries would be unable to maintain their belief that Daniel was written by human means.

    I continued looking for any critical evidence which favored Christianity over the alternatives. Instead, I kept finding critical evidence against the fundamentalist Christianity I was taught at both church and school. A quick rundown:

    I had believed first-century apostles finalized the Bible as I knew it and that any later ideas or writings were either superfluous or deviations from true Christianity.
  …but then I learned that the New Testament's table of contents was settled much later by distinctively Catholic Christians who also affirmed a larger Old Testament. I couldn't trust my sixty-six book Bible had only inspired books and all the inspired books without believing God whimsically guided fourth century Catholics to put the New Testament together right and AD-era Jews to put the Old Testament together right.

    I had believed the Gospels were independent witnesses to the life of Jesus, by the traditional authors.
  …but then I learned that the first three Gospels are textually dependent on each other like three homework essays showing signs of collaboration; scholars call this the "synoptic problem." Not such a big deal for Luke since the author admits to putting together earlier accounts, but I found it impossible to believe Matthew was written by an apostle of Jesus who only bothered mangling other accounts instead of writing his own.

    I had believed all scriptures were preserved word-for-word in their original languages.
  …but then I learned that the New Testament authors usually quoted an Old Testament with many subtle differences from the Old Testament I knew. For example, Matthew 21 depicts children praising Jesus during the triumphal entry. Jesus defends their actions to critics by quoting Psalm 8 as, "Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies You have prepared praise for Yourself." Yet Psalm 8 reads, "From the mouths of infants and nursing babes You have established strength." I realized either Jesus had a corrupted Old Testament or I did.

    I had believed the Bible accurately reports speech, though not necessarily everything a person said.
  …but then I learned that the Bible inaccurately reports speech even when accuracy would have been just as easy. For example, Mark 11:1-3 reports Jesus asking for a single donkey while Matthew 21:1-3 reports him asking for plural donkeys. This isn't an omission or a matter of translation into English; the words in Jesus' mouth are just different. If it's ok to mess with the speech of God incarnate, what else might have been adjusted?

    I had believed Biblical history was reliable and any secular history that disagreed was simply mistaken.
  …but then I learned that the Bible starts with fictional creation and flood stories. This might have been fine if they were treated as myths-with-a-message (like the Narnia novels or the Parable of the Vineyard Workers), but Eden and the flood are part of the main historical narrative. Luke even traces Jesus' genealogy back through David to Noah and Adam. I had to start worrying that other parts of the Bible might also be fiction presented as fact.

    As I was discovering problems with my fundamentalist view of the Bible, I heard about "progressive" Christians who get around all of the above by treating the Bible as a fallible human work: a book about God but not from God. This lets progressives write off gender roles as a cultural vestige and distance God from troublesome Old Testament morals such as enslaving foreigners (Lev 25:44-46), killing children as part of genocide (1 Sam 15:3), executing apostates (Deut 13:6-11), and taking virgins as sexual spoils of war (Deut 21:10-13, Num 31:17-18). Progressive Christians usually also deny Hell doctrine on the basis of incompatibility with a morally praiseworthy God. They've effectively reshaped Christianity to fit modern knowledge and moral sense. After all, there are still many wise, good, and possible things in the Bible after cutting out the foolish, evil, and false. I tried to adopt a progressive Christian view, but it was short-lived. I didn't see how a God interested in forming loving relationships with humanity or even in being worshipped as a good God would be so hands-off in allowing his character to be slandered by his own followers.

    I began to see Christianity as "just another human religion." That's the phrase that got stuck in my head and wouldn't go away. I identify with stories of other deconverts who said that once they were capable of seeing Christian faith as a product of mere human psychology and culture, they suddenly had great trouble taking off those new "glasses." (Or putting the Christian glasses back on, if you prefer.) Take prayer, for example. The doctrine that all prayers are answered "yes," "no," or "not yet" is hard to take seriously after seeing it as precisely the doctrine people would invent if no prayer were ever heard by a God. A false Christianity would also neatly explain why the Holy Spirit does not counteract the ever increasing schisms among Christians. Or why there seems to be needless suffering in the world even though an all-good, all-powerful God would ensure all suffering is for the best. And finally, why the best predictors of Christian faith are where and to whom a person is born.

    Though my beliefs had changed, I didn't want to be an unbeliever so I kept looking for reasons to think some form of Christianity is true. What if I had simply missed something? So I deliberately put my new skepticism at risk by continuing to engage with apologetics. I did come to see problems with many popular skeptical arguments and I also came to appreciate some of the more refined defenses of Christianity, especially those of Alston and Plantinga. But in the end these were only defenses of the possibility of Christian Theism, not critical reasons to believe any of it is true. Then I realized something which gave me confidence I wasn't missing some hard-to-find good reason for belief: if there is an all-powerful God who "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth," it would be in God's own interest and power to make religious truth unmistakably clear so that "all men" are able — if willing — to respond to his offer of salvation. For this reason, I take the lack of clear critical evidence for Christian belief as strong positive evidence against Christian belief.

    Where does this leave me? Not too different in day-to-day terms. I found it doesn't take belief in God and an afterlife to believe in other people and this life. If it matters how I'm treated, I know it matters how I treat others. I can't rely on thinking God will right every injustice, but then I hadn't believed unending paradise and torment were just fates since high school. I now believe it's up to us to correct injustice and suffering in the world. It's also up to us to preserve our planet for those to come, with no scheduled remake of a new heavens and new earth. And if anything, I have an increased sense of humility from realizing the universe wasn't made just for us. No single religious image ever brought out the awe I feel looking at the Hubble Ultra Deep Field and trying to grasp the sheer scale of what it reveals in one tiny, seemingly dark patch of the night sky. Is there a God hidden beyond it all? Maybe, maybe not. Though I remain open to the possibility of a God who hasn't bothered to reveal its identity and desires to humanity, I lean toward a fully natural order because God-explanations have been steadily retreating in the face of natural explanations. I doubt we'll ever run out of unanswered questions, so there will always be room to project religious answers onto the unknown, but I'm comfortable waiting until there's good reason to believe those answers are correct.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Quote of the Day: Malcolm X on Assertiveness

"I learned early on that crying out in protest could accomplish things. My older brothers and sisters had started to school when, sometimes, they would come in and ask for a buttered biscuit or something and my mother, impatiently, would tell them no. But I would cry out and make a fuss until I got what I wanted. I remember well how my mother asked me why I couldn't be a nice boy like Wilfred; but I would think to myself that Wilfred, for being so nice and quiet, often stayed hungry. So early in life, I learned that if you want something, you had better make some noise."

from The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Ballantine Books (1999). p. 8.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Moral Training Wheels

"Finally, on the theistic hypothesis God holds all persons morally accountable for their actions. Evil and wrong will be punished; righteousness will be vindicated. Good ultimately triumphs over evil, and we shall finally see that we do live in a moral universe after all. Despite the inequities of this life, in the end the scales of God’s justice will be balanced. Thus, the moral choices we make in this life are infused with an eternal significance. We can with consistency make moral choices which run contrary to our self-interest and even undertake acts of extreme self-sacrifice, knowing that such decisions are not empty and ultimately meaningless gestures."

— William Lane Craig, "Can We Be Good Without God?"
A friend of mine recently scolded her cat for starting to play with an electrical cord. It wouldn't do any good to lecture the cat about how dangerous electricity can be, so an imposed association between electrical cords and punishment are needed to keep her cat safe when no one is watching. The same applies to toddlers. Adult humans avoid chewing on electrical cords because they don't want to be shocked. No stand-in motivation needed!

When it comes to moral situations, some philosophers try to show that acting morally is in our own best interest, either all the time or often enough that we tend to come out ahead in life if we cultivate moral habits. Other philosophers (and many preachers) claim that acting morally is in our own best interest because we will be punished or rewarded in an afterlife. The quote at the top of this post is such an example: William Lane Craig believes that self-sacrifice is "empty" if it doesn't eventually turn into huge rewards for the person doing the sacrificing.

In other words, there's a tendency to reduce morality to self-interest. I believe this is a mistake. While it's true that moral action often works in our own favor, the essence of morality is other-interest.

But there's a problem: some people don't have much in the way of other-interest. How do we convince them to act in the interests of others anyway? Impose an association between harming others and punishment, or an association between helping others and reward. It's another kind of stand-in motivation.

Punishment and reward are training wheels for human beings who can grow in understanding (to better achieve what they want and avoid what they don't) and who can grow in empathy (to better care about what others want). Training wheels might keep your bike from falling over, but you aren't truly riding until you no longer need them. When I read things like the quote at the top of this post, I see a desire for perfect training wheels: the appearance of moral justice without any need to act out of the interest of others.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Monthly Picks

I Know What It Is When I Read It: Defining the Romance Genre by Jennifer Cruise (March 2000, Romance Writer's Report, supposedly). Even if you don't care a thing for romance novels, the process of coming up with a working definition that matches important intuitions is applicable to things like metaethics. If you don't care about romance novels or metaethics, why are you reading this blog?

Maybe because you like Regina Spektor?

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Quote of the Day: Tolkien on Beowulf

"Beowulf is not a 'primitive' poem; it is a late one, using the materials (then still plentiful) preserved from a day already changing and passing, a time that has now for ever vanished, swallowed in oblivion; using them for a new purpose, with a wider sweep of imagination, if with a less bitter and concentrated force. When new Beowulf was already antiquarian, in a good sense, and it now produces a singular effect. For it is now to us itself ancient; and yet its maker was telling of things already old and weighted with regret, and he expended his art in making keen that touch upon the heart which sorrows have that are both poignant and remote. If the funeral of Beowulf moved once like the echo of an ancient dirge, far-off and hopeless, it is to us as a memory brought over the hills, an echo of an echo.

There is not much poetry in the world like this; and though Beowulf may not be among the very greatest poems of our western world and its tradition, it has its own individual character, and peculiar solemnity; it would still have power had it been written in some time or place unknown and without posterity, if it contained no name that could now be recognized or identified by research. Yet it is in fact written in a language that after many centuries has still essential kinship with our own, it was made in this land, and it moves in our northern world beneath our northern sky, and for those who are native to that tongue and land, it must ever call with profound appealuntil the dragon comes."

from J.R.R. Tolkien's 1936 essay, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" in Proceedings of the British Academy 22, p. 245-295.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Terrible and Terribly Important Notion of Fiction Genres

Genres are a marketing ploy. Genres are a barrier to discovery. Genres are a curse we can't do without.

Let me back up a minute and give you some context. I'm interning at the county jail library this summer and fall. Well, "library" would be more accurate because it's a room of over ten-thousand books thrown together without organization. Staff members have kept some very popular authors and series set aside, but any inmate requests outside of those are unlikely to be filled. There's no way to locate or even confirm the existence of those items. My job is to do a lot of the grunt work in turning this pile into a collection.

Inmates can request a particular title, author, or genre. They won't be able to browse the shelves directly. I knew that if I had a big "General Fiction" category, not many people are going to write: "Please find me some General Fiction novels!" How utterly boring! Might as well throw out every less popular author in that entire section.

I needed to come up with enough genres to put an interesting genre label on everything, even titles not traditionally considered "genre fiction." After much agonizing, I came up with the following scheme:

A cheating category. Classics are, roughly, pre-20th century books that are still reprinted or re-translated. Sherlock Holmes and Dracula would fit, but they are so strongly expected in other genres that they don't count.

Traditional "Genre Fiction"

Sure, these can be separate, but readership and the works themselves very frequently cross over. Plus, that's a rockin' dragon sticker. What goes here? Advanced technology, strange worlds, and supernatural things that most people agree aren't real.

Anything explicitly labeled "romance" or from a romance imprint goes here, even if it has strong SF/Fantasy elements. Also included are books with descriptions that exclusively describe a romantic relationship, i.e. not just as a major element in a story focused on another kind of struggle. It's no accident that I picked a non-gendered sticker.

Like romance, westerns are predominately identified by their marketing. Although there are many titles that mix romance and western themes, it's usually easy to tell romantic westerns from western romances. Unfortunately, this distinction tends to line up with marketing to men vs. marketing to women. This is one way that genre labels stifle discovery by exaggerating the separation between quite similar works.

Some mysteries are labeled as such, but it makes sense to be more inclusive than that. Whenever the plot centers on discovering the identity of a criminal, it's a mystery. SF/Fantasy mysteries still get dragon stickers.

General Fiction and Literature

With "genre fiction" out of the way, what can be done about the great big Miscellaneous category found in most bookstores and libraries? I broke it down into three parts...

An arbitrary but popular line to draw is that fiction set during or before the World Wars counts as historical fiction. Unless it fits western conventions, or those for SF/Fantasy, or mysteries. Even with all of these exclusions, these shelves are bursting.

Thrillers is the section for spies, soldiers, and serial killers. Film versions of thriller books go under Action/Adventure. Crime fiction can go here if the reader finds out the antagonist's identity early on and the big question is whether the protagonist can do something about it.

Technically, thrillers tend to be realistic in the sense that they are contemporary stories without fantasy or science fiction elements. Realistic fiction concerns relatively regular people in relatively common life situations, though not necessarily from the reader's own culture. Film versions of these books tend to go under Drama. Elements of romance, thriller, and mystery genres can be present, so long as they don't overwhelm the focus on complex contemporary characters.

What About...

It might be OK for Barnes & Noble to have a Christian Fiction section, but it doesn't sit so well with librarians because it can imply that the other fiction either is less suitable for Christians to read or is insufficiently orthodox. State librarians are not in the position to issue or promote religious imprimaturs. Plus, it pulls books away from from all of the other genre shelves where they might find a broader readership. The Chronicles of Narnia, Left Behind, and Seasons of Grace are much more at home in SF/Fantasy, Thrillers, and Realistic Fiction respectively.

That said, some readers are publishers and readers who favor books with strong religious themes. Other readers feel strongly about avoiding books from such publishers, either from religious disagreement or for the same reason a person who likes romantic fiction might distrust the quality standards of "romance mill" publishers. So, in addition to a primary genre sticker, books from such publishers or imprints (e.g. Harlequin's Heartsong) will have an "Inspirational" label:

Not the most apt term, but it's a widely-understood convention that further distances librarians from the legal and ethical issues of judging some works to be "Christian Fiction."

Easy and Limiting

The single best article I've read on fiction genres is Ursula K. LeGuin's "Genre: A Word Only a Frenchman Could Love" (Public Libraries, Vol. 44, Is. 1, p. 21 [PDF]). I recommend reading the whole thing. LeGuin would prefer a world where all fiction is interfiled by author's last name, removing the prejudice of genre systems. But she knows her vision would be opposed:
"Consumerism also rules. If the books aren’t labeled, if they aren’t shelved by genre, if they don’t have a little bitty label saying SF or M or YA, a whole lot of customers and library users will come storming the counter or the desk, shouting, 'Where is my fiction fix? I want a fantasy, I can’t read all that realistic stuff! I want a mystery, I can’t read all that plotless stuff! I want a masterpiece of grim realism, I can’t read all that imaginary stuff! I want mindless fluff, I can’t read all that literary stuff! Etc., etc.'

To give each reader an annotated author-title list of whatever their fiction addiction is, so they can go find the books on the shelves, is a perfectly fair solution, offered by many libraries. But addicts don’t like it. They want books to be easy the way fast food is easy. They want to go to the shelf and stick out their hand and get a fix."
For my particular situation of no-browsing-allowed, sticking out a hand (so to speak) is the best supported scenario for discovering new books. Can public and school libraries do better? I'm having trouble finding references right now, but I've heard of libraries interfiling all fiction and using small, colored genre dots on the spines. The nice thing is that there's no need to pick a "primary" genre, so those readers of western romances and romantic westerns are more likely to notice similarly-themed works and go exploring outside of their traditional haunts. Heck, I've seen things like inspirational-historical fiction-romance and SF-mystery-thriller. These books could easily be picking up new readers through providing more genre information than traditional genre shelving supports.

Library catalogs could also help, but usable catalogs are still the stuff of science fiction. For now, physical genre markers are still the best way of directing many people to titles they'll feel comfortable trying out.