Archive for February, 2011

I still don’t know quite what I was thinking, but I’ve been and gone and done a video thing of myself talking to a camera and put it up on the YouTubes.

The quality’s pretty terrible, because there’s no point spending the kind of money it’d take to buy a camera that doesn’t suck, for a ridiculous venture that’ll probably go nowhere anyway. But I actually sort of had fun with this, once I pushed through the smothering self-consciousness I always feel when my face or my voice are doing anything.

So, yeah. If you think it’s something that should happen more, go give it a comment or a thumbs-up or whatever. I may yet persist with this. Time will tell.

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Interesting report from Ben Goldacre today about drug sniffer dogs used by police. Which might not leap out at you as a fascinating source of potential gossip, unless you have a better sense of these things than I did.

But it’s turning out that the Clever Hans effect might play a bigger role in sniffer dogs’ drug detection than was previously thought. That is, the human handlers’ expectations of where the drugs are might have at least as much impact on the dogs’ behaviour as the actual scent of drugs.

So, if you look like the sort of person who might have drugs on you, it’s possible that you’re just as likely to be barked at than someone who looks innocent but is smuggling dope through customs.

It’s not the scariest affront to civil liberties I’ve heard this week – I doubt anyone’s going to be arrested just because a dog growled at you if you’re not actually carrying anything illegal (though more horrible things have happened). But as Ben points out, it highlights the “theatre” aspect of much of what passes for important national security these days.

One thing I’m left wondering, though, is how sniffer dogs’ efficiency could be improved. I mean, I have no idea how they’re normally trained, or exactly what they’re picking up on in their handlers that makes them think they should take a particular interest in the guy with the beard – but are they perhaps learning these cues in the training itself?

If, when the dogs are learning what scents to look out for and how to respond when they track one to the source, they’re always in the presence of handlers who know exactly where the drugs are that they’re supposed to be finding, then maybe it only makes sense for them to also associate certain human behaviours with the items they should respond. In which case, there may exist a way to re-design their training, so that the only thing they’re cued to react to is the smell of drugs.

Anyone who knows anything about how this kind of thing actually works should feel free to educate me, as ever.

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This post makes several good points.

Sometimes, bad words are bad. Language can be extremely offensive. For instance, unless you’ve been paying no attention at all to the last few decades or so of Western culture, you’ll be aware that there are some things you don’t generally call black people in public.

And there are times when it’s simply a matter of basic courtesy and compassion to moderate our language in other ways, choosing phrases that avoid certain connotations with the potential to wound. Richard Littlejohn might object even to this measure of “political correctness”, but it’s often just basic human sensitivity.

But sometimes it does go too far, and language policing can intrude on and obstruct useful dialogue.

It reminds me a little of the more tiresome aspects of the Don’t Be A Dick kerfuffle still going on among the skeptical community. The people arguing for impeccable civility when interacting with outsiders can often be the ones with the most obnoxious and infuriating tone when dealing with fellow skeptics.

And, similarly, people most actively clamouring for a sensitive use of inclusive language often seem to find the most tactless and judgmental way of making their point.

If somebody has written a lengthy treatise on some topic of interest, and your first or only response to is to point out that they used a term you consider unacceptable or discriminatory, condemn them for being prejudiced or insensitive, and act as if this shuts down the rest of the discussion, then we’re going to waste a lot of time before we have a chance to actually talk about any worthwhile issues.

You can still point out the objectionable term, but don’t automatically assume that it came from a place of spite or malice, and don’t act as if it renders insignificant any points the person was trying to make.

Maybe they just don’t give transsexual issues much attention in their everyday lives and so didn’t think to include that factor specifically in their phrasing. It doesn’t make someone a terrible person for working under a passive assumption that male/female is a simple binary system, if they’re writing about something entirely unconnected to gender issues.

Maybe they haven’t heard it used as a term of abuse and harmlessly assumed that “Paki” was simply a diminutive of “Pakistani”. Most of them will be eager to amend their language if they learn that it’s widely interpreted in a hostile way. That doesn’t need to be the most important thing about the geopolitical analysis in which they inadvertently used the slur.

Maybe they get a bit lazily heteronormative from time to time. We’ve all done it. It’s worth watching out for, but it’s not the end of the world.

I suspect that most such instances where the language police are called in aren’t due to genuine racism, or sexism, or anything so actively unjust. It’s just people slipping up and getting things a bit wrong. And they deserve the benefit of the doubt more often than not.

(Hat-tip to Broadsnark, if memory serves.)

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But tea and cakes excite me

While I was writing that post about gender bias and whatnot last week, and looking up related things online in a manner which could very loosely be described as “research”, I found something I wanted to talk about but which ended up not really fitting into that particular post. Specifically, this Rihanna video. (It may be NSFW, and is perhaps not something I’d want to watch with any young relatives, but it’s not explicitly porny either.)

I hadn’t seen it when I started writing that post, but I’d heard about it, and I’d followed some of the controversy surrounding the other single and music video she’d done with Eminem. And I sort of wish I’d managed to fit at least a comment on the track into the point I was making at the time.

Earlier today, I heard S&M on the radio for the first time, and although the part about sticks and stones breaking her bones was uncensored, all subsequent mention of the things that “excite” her had been edited right out. I commented on Twitter earlier that enjoying yourself seems to be less socially acceptable than severe physical impairment these days, and suggested some bowdlerised, radio-friendly alternative lyrics in place of her damnably filthy original words.

(“Chains and whips”, if you couldn’t guess and didn’t want to check.)

People these days tend to avoid the cliché of imploring you to “think of the children” in exactly those words, because it’s been so widely mocked that it basically satirises itself now, but the implication is still often made. The corresponding question, though, which is so rarely asked, is: What about the grown-ups? What about people who maybe just want to enjoy some entertainment with a little edge to it that might not be everyone’s cup of tea? Don’t they get to have any fun?

I’m not primarily trying to talk about censorship, though.

The main point I’m aiming for is one that Greta Christina made a while back about Lady Gaga, and the way her music videos nonchalantly and unashamedly use aspects of “sex culture” in creating mainstream art:

What’s more, they seem to be strongly influenced by these cultures, not as an outsider, not as someone who’s manipulating this imagery to titillate/shock the audience, but as an insider, someone who’s intimately familiar with both sex culture and sexual marginalization. Lady Gaga’s music videos (coupled with her interviews about her work) show a thoughtful, informed insight into polymorphous perversity.

I think much the same is true of Rihanna’s latest output. I don’t buy that it’s purely a cynical move, and that she’s sexing things up as controversially as she can get away with solely because she knows it’ll sell. I get the impression that she means it, and that it genuinely means something to her.

And, in case it wasn’t clear, I think this is A Good Thing, on a subject which deserves to be talked about more broadly and openly among people willing to confess to an interest in such things. Men and women both deserve the chance to play at being sexy pieces of meat, after all.

Not sure why this grabbed my attention as much as it did, but there you go.

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Haven’t had much to say here lately, so let’s comment on this.

You might have already come across the “rubber hand illusion”:

It’s a fascinatingly weird example of neuro-somethingorother and brain-oddness.

Basically, you put one of your hands somewhere you can’t see it, and place a more or less realistic-looking rubber hand on the table in front of you. Then, someone touches or strokes the rubber hand, while making the same contact with your own hand where you can’t see it. You’re seeing the rubber hand being touched, and feeling the sensation of being touched – and it only takes a couple of minutes for your brain to decide that it must be your hand it can see there on the table in front of it.

It’s such a strong illusion that you’ll start to feel a response if you see the rubber hand being poked, even if nothing’s happened to your actual hand. The brain sees something happening to what it’s convinced is your hand, decides that this ought to be feeling a certain way, and so induces that expected feeling.

This latest development is new to me, and possibly even creepier.

Apparently, if you do basically the same thing but with your real hand and the rubber hand lying next to each other, both being touched at the same time, the hand also starts to feel like yours. People in this experiment report that they “felt as if [they] had two right hands”.

It’s a precarious illusion, and not one the brain’s stupid enough to fall for too easily – it won’t work if the real and fake hands aren’t both touched at the same time, or if they don’t match. But it’s another example of just how much our brains can be taken in by bizarre tricks, even when we think we know better.

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I am in favour of the objectification of women.

Okay, that might be a little misleading, but if I said I was against it then that wouldn’t be controversial or edgy at all.

Either way, I should clarify my position a little.

Objectifying women isn’t always a good thing. Nor is it always a good thing when it happens to men. Transfolk probably bear the worst of it. But gender-based degradation of women is no small deal.

Strip clubs and pornography exist, (predominantly) for the enjoyment of (also predominantly) heterosexual men. We like being able to lust after and fantasise about women explicitly, and these things give us a chance to do that in a way our hormones crave but society doesn’t often allow us. There’s a vast industry which relies on exploiting and reinforcing the role of women as objects of men’s sexual desire.

And it’s not outrageous to imagine that these attitudes might spill over into other areas of human interaction. Women have a hard time being taken seriously by some people in many areas of business – the corporate and political worlds are still predominantly white and male.

There’s a degree of imbalance and inequality between the genders (let alone among people who don’t fit neatly into one category or the other) which nobody should wish to see perpetuated.

But if your intent is to be a critical thinker, a skeptic, a rational humanist – in other words, if you give a shit about people and you care whether what you believe is actually true – then you should be open to criticism of the ways you might think this imbalance ought to be addressed.

In particular, I think the sexism debate could do with much more emphasis on building up than dragging down.

Take strip clubs. Some people – mostly women who identify with a particular definition of feminism – think these are awful places, and want to see laws passed against their very existence. They don’t want men to be encouraged to see women as pieces of meat on show for their enjoyment, and they don’t want women to feel pressured into having to take a demeaning job as the best way of supporting themselves financially, because of the sexist attitudes this perpetuates.

Rather than doing anything to support or encourage women, this seems only to assume that men can’t be trusted and will inevitably behave with deplorable incivility if offered the slightest prompting to do so.

Some men fail, or refuse, to act as if women are ever anything more than sexy pieces of meat. That’s undoubtedly a bad thing – it’s a pretty crappy move to write off most of an entire gender’s potential like that. But it’s not clear that this behaviour will be diminished even slightly if you remove the venues where men get to enjoy ogling the sexy meat with impunity. It’s not going to stop men noticing that women are sexy and they are made of meat, or stop them behaving in ways inappropriate outside of allocated zones like a strip club.

However… this also isn’t to say that there’s not a problem worth addressing here. The fact is that men often do take the “sexy meat” attitude to women beyond reasonable bounds. Most women I know have had direct experience of being made to feel as if their physicality is all they’re good for, in a way that wasn’t appropriate and which they didn’t enjoy.

But there’s no contradiction in letting people know what’s inappropriate and what isn’t in the majority of human interaction, while also letting people earn a living through sex work or a related industry.

There’s an automatic connection in many people’s minds between a person earning a living in the sex industry, and that person being diminished in the perception of the rest of society. But that’s a problem with society and its hang-ups, not with the industry itself.

Some people are generalised about and de-individualised, because of their gender or gender identity – something of which both men and women can be both objects and perpetrators. Some women find that the sex industry provides the only means through which they can financially support themselves. That’s a problem with the economy and the job market, not with the one profession offering them a life-line.

I understand some people’s frustrations at the “freedom of speech” counter-argument. Josie Long has tweeted in the past about how little she appreciates the way she’s sometimes stereotyped as a woman, and sees strip clubs as a part of the problem. She appreciates the importance of freedom, but has tried to explain that it’s an unhelpful thing to use as a conversation-stopper.

Freedom’s important, but a lot of people still aren’t happy, and there might be something we can do about that even if we don’t agree on what we can do about it straight away.

Banning the burqa was an attempt to address an illiberal cultural tradition by means of an illiberal national law. I think passing legislation against strip clubs is a similarly bad idea, but re-emphasising the importance of people’s personal freedoms doesn’t solve the issue of the oppression of women within Islam, or of the bidirectional gender discrimination in the rest of society.

Giles Coren didn’t solve any of those problems either, but he was right about a few things. Misandry deserves to be given proper consideration, and men can be victims of just about every injustice that can befall women. But the two distinct problems don’t need to be placed in competition. We don’t need to bring attention to the suffering of men by playing down the hardships faced by women, and we don’t have to decry the evils of the sex industry if we think women deserve a greater societal respect. (How much respect does it show for the men and women in the sex industry, if we insist that they and their profession must be eliminated before we can make any progress?)

Some women want to have sex for money. Some women want to be treated more like an actual human being around the office. Both of these are fine aims, and we only need to make sure we’re giving each issue a reasonable amount of attention, without letting any one side of the conversation become stifling.

By which I mean: Let’s not get so hung up on the issue of freedom in the sex industry that we ignore the plight of women who feel inappropriately sexualised and objectified by men – but, let’s try not to focus on sexualisation as a bad thing, to such an extent that people in the sex industry feel marginalised or demeaned themselves.

Let’s not sneer at any attempt to raise the subject of misandry in a sensitive discussion about gender discrimination – but let’s also not be so persistent or strident in bringing it up that women always feel like they’re being shoved aside so that men can talk about their own problems.

Yes. Let’s all just follow my advice and everything will definitely be fine.

(If the comments below happen to go feral again, do try to keep things civilised.)

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Proper posts are on the way.

In the meantime, read Alice’s report on a leaked email that was recently sent to professional homeopaths around the UK.

It emphasises the importance of choosing an argument that “avoids the need to prove the science”, when advocating for the right to market homeopathy as if it were medicine. Instead, it’s all about “patient choice”.

They know it doesn’t work, but people are big enough suckers to keep buying it anyway and the homeopaths want to keep on milking it.


If I had more energy I’d probably get more angry and self-righteous about it. Right now I’m mostly just nonplussed that I seem to have totally forgotten how to write a book. Seriously, it’s been a few months since I tried and I just have no idea. It’s like I’m just dumbly holding my shoelaces and can’t remember how to tie them.

Anyway. That’s not your problem. Hoping to have a nice, long, possibly controversial rant up here tomorrow. Stay tuned.

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My Christian friend Jessica makes a lot of sense. About sexual health and education, anyway. I’m less on board with the Jesus stuff.

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I happened across some articles online about “Friendly” Artificial Intelligence not long ago, and then spent most of the rest of the afternoon reading up on it instead of doing any work.

There’s actually more to learn about AI than you might think, even as relates to our current state of scientific progress. The Singularity (whatever that ends up meaning) is clearly still some way off, but a lot of interesting topics are becoming relevant right now, and there are people out there who’ve already spent some time thinking about them in much greater depth than I ever have.

This is a good place to start, with a basic outline of what it means for an AI to be “Friendly”. The main thing to remember seems to be that an AI is not going to be “basically like us but built of different stuff”. There’s no reason it should come pre-loaded with all the same things we do, or exhibit any of our tendencies toward destructive behaviour, jealousy, selfishness, or whatever. There are many, many ways to be smart other than being human.

It’s all too easy to assume that AIs will have some kind of intelligence we’re familiar with, though, which is why in fiction they tend to have very human-like personalities (or animal-like, but still with the same kind of familiarity). There’s always a perceived danger that they’ll run amuck and turn angrily against their creators – but only because that’s what we’d do.

It occurred to me while reading that article that people do the same thing with God. Almost every way that they’ve been perceived in human history, gods have been suspiciously human-like in their motivations, and have espoused philosophies and advice curiously suited to the particular cultures in which they arose. It seems likely that the limits of human imagination have played a big part in this, too.

The Singularity Institute For Artificial Intelligence blog is one to watch, and this list of objections often raised against the plausibility or desirability of various kinds of AI is another interesting introduction to the topic.

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Only just noticed this one. The Society of Homeopaths’ “Media Code” guidelines have been leaked, and recommend that its members be unsurprisingly weaselly in dealing with media attention.

Le Canard Noir has the details. In short, professional homeopaths are being urged either to perpetuate dishonesty, or to be as disingenuous as possible in making positive claims about their magic unmedicine.

Just the kind of vacuous insincerity you’d expect them to have to resort to if there was absolutely nothing in it.

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