April 30, 2013

Chain Bear Blog Has Moved

I've been meaning to move this blog from Blogger to Wordpress for ages, but was always too lazy. Then I realised it was ridiculously easy to migrate, so now you can find me at:


You'll probably need to update your RSS feeds if you were following on RSS. Having said that, I redirected the old RSS to the Wordpress, so maybe you won't?

You can tell I'm good at this, can't you?

April 24, 2013

More on Dawkins. Morekins.

A further thought upon my blog post about Dawkins last week.

I made a suggestion that Richard Dawkins should stick to spouting wise about evolutionary biology instead of burping out whatever thought comes into his head about feminism, Islam and all the rest. I also, maybe as a lemma, suggested he wasn’t worth listening to unless he was speaking about evolutionary biology. But this isn’t strictly true and kind of poisons the well somewhat.
See, Dawkins is actually good at writing and research. Even when he writes outside of biology, his back-of-the-book bibliography is still ten miles long. His writing in The God Delusion was forceful, but generally considered. This comes with the benefits of writing a book. With a book you spend time scouring resources, references and witnesses; you can do rewrites and edits; you get peers and editors to check your work. By the time you’ve actually published your book, you’ve produced a (hopefully) finely honed piece of work.
Tweets are often none of the above. Dawkins’s tweets in particular tend to be whatever idea has rolled over inside his brain at any particular moment. Due to Dawkins’s quite substantial credentials and following, he tends to think every thought he has it worth sharing. It is not.
I guess we’re just not used to seeing raw Dawkins (Rawkins?) and perhaps this is a good opportunity to learn a valuable lesson in:
a)      Research
b)      Editing
c)       Peer Review
d)      Arrogance
e)      The old classic, ‘Engage Brain Before Opening Mouth’

April 22, 2013

National Treasure

I'd quite like to be popular enough on twitter that hundreds of people rush to my defence no matter what stupid shit I say. I mean, I'd be somewhat uncomfortable with it and of course I'd tell them to stop being to silly. But it would be nice.

In fact, maybe I'd just start saying more and more outrageous and clearly unhinged stuff to see how much it would take for my little twitter army to turn on me. It could be my own little social experiment, my own twitter version of Joaquin Phoenix.

Now that I think about it, maybe some people are already doing this. I can't wait to see their results.

April 18, 2013

'Crazy' and Other Words (Pt 1)

I've been thinking about this for a little while, and in light of some heated discussions that have occurred in my line of sight, I thought I'd vomit out a few thoughts.

Some people use words like 'crazy', 'mad', 'insane' and many, many synonymous terms (seriously, there's like a bazillion of them, most of them food-based) to describe people with, let's say, erroneous opinions. Other people call out this use of language as slurring of the actually mentally ill, similar to other social slurs like 'Paki', 'tranny' or 'sand monkey'.

(Incidentally, the Public Shaming blog has made me aware of a whole range of bizarre racial epithets that I never knew existed. America's multi-culturalism has brought with is multi-cultural racism.)

Now, it's rare that I can say this, but I actually have a foot in the door with this discussion. I suffer from depression - not as badly as many, but the waves come and go and still cause me problems. Depression makes me crazy. See, craziness or insanity is a description of the disconnect between reality and one's mental interpretation of reality. JT Eberhard in his quite wonderful talk on his own mental illness reminded me that it was OK to consider myself crazy (at time), because that was accurate. When I'm in the good part of my depressive waves, I can look back to the troughs and realise, 'Shit, the way I saw things was completely wrong, I was so blinded by the fog of depression.'

My point in the above is to actually define what craziness is. There may be a clinical, chronic insanity, where you are near-permanently separated from reality and there may be bouts of insanity, which you can escape from. People with body dysmorphia (often including eating disorders), for example, are constantly fighting their own minds interpretation of their own bodies. It's crazy.

So, when people call another person's opinion crazy, it really tends to be a description of the difference between what they've said and what's real. For example, if someone told me the Earth was flat, I might call that crazy. Or insane. It is my opinion (thus far) that this a legitimate use of the word 'crazy'. Alternatively, you might call the person making the statement crazy: 'You think the Earth is flat? You're crazy!' Again (and this depends on each context), the suggestion of this phrase is really that the statement is crazy and not that the person is crazy, or mentally ill. But what if it didn't? What if the accuser was suggestion that there's was something problematic in the Flat-Earther's mind that made him unable to connect the facts and appreciate the reality of a round Earth? It's a euphemistic, metaphorical parallel to mental illness, I guess. Is this wrong?

This is where I start to get a bit hazy. And now we have to consider what calling someone crazy actually suggests about genuinely mentally ill people. From my perspective, I do not think calling someone crazy suggests that mentally ill people are bad. Calling someone a slut (pejoratively) does. Calling someone or their argument crazy tends to speak to the argument, statement or position they hold.

However, this is just from my perspective and I've barely had any societal push back for my particular mental problems, which is great for me. So, I've titled this blog post, "Pt 1" so that I can try an engage with other people of mental illness and see if this kind of language has affected them. Then I'll come back once I have a better idea.

I Can Solve This Whole Richard Dawkins Problem

Richard Dawkins was a big player in reigniting the atheist movement and possibly the skeptic and humanist movements too, with the release of The God Delusion. This made him a sort of focal point for a lot of 'New Atheists' and people of that ilk and caused religious groups to equate with a Pope-like figure.

Now, really we should all know that we have, in the (borrowed) words of Margaret Sanger, 'No Gods, No Masters.' We should hold no one up to the standards of near-infallibility. The whole point of skepticism and its subsidiaries are to reserve doubt, to question and not to follow blindly. So the first and most obvious point to make is that, obviously Richard Dawkins is not the final word on everything and people who just sponge up everything he says need to stop it.

See, Richard Dawkins, now that he's strapped himself into the social media machine, has continued to brain-fart across the twittersphere for all and sundry. This has revealed his ignorance and his privilege when it comes to social justice issues that many in the skeptic arena are moving to embrace. He is often as arrogant and dismissive as you might expect a septuagenariat white, male emeritas professor and best-selling author to be; his plasticity is somewhat rigid at this point.

This doesn't excuse the crap he says (with annoyingly increasing frequency), but I think we need to remember this: Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist. That's his expertise. Those are his credentials. That's not to say people can't speak knowledgeably and legitimately outside of their fields but Dawkins is no social scientist, feminist or theologian and often hasn't done the legwork required to give his brain-farts the acknowledgement being given. When he dismisses modern feminism, I like to think as if he's dismissing House music or Danny Boyle films. Why should we care what he says about these things? He has nothing to do with them and knows little about them.

Of course, the problem is that people do care about what he says, whatever he talks about. He's a lauded figure. But we need to uncouple these experts from the things they know next to nothing about. Just because you're a respected and listened-to figure in certain areas, doesn't mean that every word leaving your lips turns to gold. If we can keep reminding ourselves that the further speakers are from their expertise, the more evidence we should demand from them to back up their assertions.

Or, stop listening to Dawkins unless he's talking about the Gene Theory of Natural Selection.

March 21, 2013

I Don't Like Labels Anymore

While we’re at it with naming stuff, I think I’ve decided I don’t like labelling myself anymore. I’m not sure I was ever super comfortable with it, but it’s becoming increasingly frustrating.

I’m not intending to come at this from a hipster, alternative, underground, ‘man, what are labels but shackles, man?’ angle, though that might well be what actually bothers me. I could call myself a ‘sceptic’, for example. But I think I’d prefer to say, ‘I like to be sceptical’ or ‘I believe in thinking sceptically about {x,y,z}’. The latter describes the way you do things and can be used in more specific circumstances; it’s less constrictive upon me as a person. The former phrasing invites a boxing in of my identity and character, allowing people to impress assumptions and expectations upon me. ‘You’re a sceptic, so you must be A and B and do C, D and E,’ people could say. Whether these people are wrong or right about the conclusions from my label is moot. The point is that is I say I’m a {whatever} I immediately force people’s brains to create an image of me and fit further observations of me to that image.

Furthermore, I’m not sure I feel complete enough as a person to identify as anything in particular. I’m forever learning and growing and changing and discovering. I’m not a sceptic because there are lots of circumstances in which I let my feelings lead my and surrender my disbelief and inquisition to them. Sometimes, this is a good thing: if I’m watching a blockbuster film, it’s a serene experience not to question why the hell everything is blowing up or how that ninja dodged a bullet. I’m not always a feminist because I still get easily trapped by biases, right there in my sneaky subconscious. I’ll always try to be feminist, but that’s a different story.

See, I’m an adjective man, me. I’d like to describe myself and my actions than give myself an identity.

Thinking about this further, this may actually be a product of low self-esteem than most of what I said above. Hold that thought.

The Power of Technical Language

Deputy Editor of the New Statesman, Helen Lewis said something interesting on the Pod Delusion this week. Speaking to James O’Malley about feminism she said that ‘intersectionality’ was a great idea, but that she hated the word.

Let’s quickly step back a moment. Intersectionality studies the overlap (or ‘intersections’, I guess) between all the minority groups; the idea of bringing intersectionality into feminism is to prevent it becoming a white, middle-class action. By understanding that discrimination and the fight for equality blends across racial, sexual and social classifications, people can become better and more informed about how to narrow the equality gap. I think it was Beth Presswood (GodlessBitches) who described the revelation as a rhetorical question (paraphrased): ‘if you were to stack up the different types of people: who has a more privileged position – a black man or a white woman?’

So, back to Helen Lewis (and I’m not actually responding to or rebutting Lewis, rather rebounding from a singular point she made). The point Lewis was making was that she believed words like ‘intersectionality’ are useful in that they describe a concept as yet uncollected, but the word itself remains in the domain of more rigorous debate. It’s useful to actual egalitarian thinkers when engaging in discussion but isolating to the layperson to whom you may be trying to open an understanding.
What’s this boils down to in a more general sense is – is technical language a barrier to discussion and introducing ideas?

I have an urge to answer ‘no’. This might be because I tend to approach things (if I’m interested) in an academic way and make the effort to explore and understand if I’m going to engage with a topic. So there may be some personal bias here, I’ll admit. But language and words are powerful gateway tools to understanding. The concept of intersectionality may take a little bit of introduction, but once I understood it, it was an incredible useful term. It describes quite a lot in seven syllables. If I was exploring  why there aren’t a lot of women in (say) architecture and someone told me to think more intersectionally, I would understand more immediately that whatever the issue was, it ran across several minorities. It’s made understanding other new words like ‘kierarchy’ much simpler, because kierarchy is just the intersectional form of patriarchy.

Introducing technical or academic language takes a little more time, but over the long term (even the length of a conversation) it allows you to make larger leaps forward, making secondary and tertiary concepts much more accessible. For example, I could spend ten minutes clearing up nuclear fusion and nuclear fission and then we could have a much more involved discussion about the ramifications of the difference fuel and reactor types. Without including people in your language you may never be able to allow them the deeper understanding that gives them the power to make decisions and form opinions in the future.

Granted, if you’ve got seven minutes on LBC to convey an idea in an interview (as Lewis described) then you don’t have the power to do that. I understand that. But I wouldn’t go as far as called the word ‘intersectionality’ and other academic language ‘terrible’. Oh, no.

March 19, 2013

Penises: Not my Cup of Tea for Some Reason

So, I was talking to this bisexual guy the other day and we happened to get chatting about sexuality in general. I can't remember how we got to that, but I'm sure it was an awesome segue.

He said, 'I don't know how you monosexuals do it; you're cutting your sexual opportunities in half,' or something to that effect. This dissolved into a mindfarty dialogue in which I started to wonder what the hell it was that made me attracted to women and not men. I mean, I do like a bosom. Anyone who knows me will tell you that, even if you don't ask. But is a bosom the only thing that pulls me towards women? Yes No.

I'm going to binerise gender a little bit here as my experience and exposure to the spectrum is limited to the point of negligable. I haven't forgotten those outside of that binary, I just have nothing meaningful to say at this point.

I had a long think about people I had been attracted to, whether or not that led to anything requited. These people are pretty much all women. But these women are scattered across a range of qualities, both physical and personal, and I was struggling to nail a predictable pattern to them. Other than the obvious quality of being able to sustain an interesting or entertaining conversation for more than two minutes is a good start - having common ground tends to make for better coupling - there really wasn't too much to go on. There certainly wasn't anything particularly 'feminine' about their common qualities other than their bodies in any sense that dragged their circle out of the overlap with my male friends. Sure, they'd wear make up and do womenly things, but their interests and expressions thereof were no different to my close male friends.

So is it just a bodily thing? If I took someone I totally fancied the pants off and body swapped them with a man, would I suddenly stop fancying them? I probably would. And that's weird, isn't it? I guess it's not weird in the evolutionary sense in which a heteronormative urge to procreate ends up being pretty useful at the species level. But we humans tend to think ourselves above our biology, smarter than our instincts and gutteral drives, don't we? I don't like the fact that something that simple can change everything for me; it puts me in the position of marionette, with biology working the strings. Am I not allowed to master my own order of attraction?

The further question is: how much of my sexuality is shaped by genetics and how much by societal structuring of sexuality (and heteronormativity)? Kenneth Miller's research with twins has shown that sexuality is influenced by genetics, but how much is left by our early exposure to what one should deem attractive or not? This is all unresearched waffling, of course, but you can see among all ages how people who follow contemporary trends and fashions tend to be viewed as more attractive than those out of step. Look at heartthrobs and sexy peoples as they were in the 80s - they look hilarious and would be near-undateable if they presented today as they did in that fashionably confused decade. Make-up, clothing, body size and hair all undulate from cool to laughable over the decades and centuries and our sense of what's attractive moves with it. So my question is - how much does sexuality tie in with this sense of 'expected attraction'?

I don't have any answers to this by the way, I just want to know why I don't want to touch a penis. I mean, another penis.

February 19, 2013

On Dystopian Power

This is a quickie: more of a tweet that exploded into a larger thought.

Last night during Black Mirror, I tweeted that post-apocalyptic dystopian future worlds (of which Black Mirror's was in the sense that all the people in it had lost their minds and were unable to function as a society) always bothered me in that most of them seemed to still have electricity.

I worked for a time in the energy industry, though Lord knows I was not particularly good at it. Now electricity is produced on-demand, which means that when you turn your TV on, you need generation happening somewhere to provide you that power. Power stations don't (for the most part) store any of their energy - it goes straight into the electricity grid and pops out at your plug socket. This is simplified* but essentially true. You can think of the National Grid as a system of pipes with water being pumped in one end (electricity generation from power stations) and being siphoned off at the household end (electricity demand for your TV). You have to keep 'pumping' energy in at one end for it to be available for all the millions of siphons in homes around the country. On top of that, you have to keep the frequency at a steady 50Hz - i.e. you have to generate at almost exactly the rate that it's being used - or everything goes bananas (technical term).

My overreaching point is this: if you don't have a massive, populated infrastructure of people running your power stations and grid, electricity simply won't work. So, when I see Will Smith watching a DVD in I am Legend, I wonder where his energy comes from? How does he pump petrol into his car? It makes me think there is a secret twist that actually the rest of the country is fine and Will was the last to know.

As a further point, it should remind us of how much we rely on one another. There really isn't much 'going it alone' as we rely on everyone else to do almost everything for us, without realising it. Be it generating energy, dealing with waste, preparing food, building all our stuff, we need each other.

This is handled very well in Gone - a book series in which every adult disappears and the kids left behind realise they not only don't know how to do anything - they can't do anything.

*Actualy, energy companies and the grid predict how much energy the country will need at any time in the day and attempt to match that demand GW for GW.

February 15, 2013

A Guide to Perving Appropriately

Today both The Sun and The Daily Mail (and probably others, though I am unsure as of writing) have chosen to illustrate the murder of Reeva Steenkamp with assorted bikini and lingerie pictures from her modelling career. This came as a surprise to some, as it seemed like it might possibly be edging towards bad taste to perv over a recently murdered woman. But, what do I know? I'm just a layman - the tabloids have been working on appropriate perving for decades and if anyone knows decency -- it's the tabloids.

If you study the actions of the tabloids -- what they've chosen to print, and what they've demonised for being in print -- we can build up a solid picture of when it is and is not appropriate to leer over certain people. And by 'people', I mean 'women', obviously.

It is NOT appropriate to perv if the subject is:

  • An heir-giving princess in the nude.
  • An heir-giving princess wearing a bikini while pregnant.
  • The Queen (probably? untested)
It is entirely fine to perv if the subject is:

So that's that sorted, then.

February 04, 2013

If Not a Jehovah's Witness

Every Thursday, I'm visited by a young Jehovah's Witness. He comes to my door, sometimes alone but often with a sidekick, and we have a chat for half an hour about religion, its truth and its benefits. He's also an ardent Creationist, which I did not realise about Jehovah's Witness. This makes me dubious that he can ever embrace a genuine argument against his position as Creationism is about as solid as a house of cards. Having said that, he's not an idiot by any stretch and his heart is in the right place, if not his head.

Based on the fact that he does seem to be a loving, conscientious individual, I have often wondered how much actual good he would do had he not chosen to follow his ministry. So I asked him where he would be if the church wasn't a part of his life. He's nineteen.

He told me that when he was young, he had often wanted to be a doctor or a physicist. He was particularly passionate about taking up a career in which he could make as much change as possible, where he could help the maximum number of people within his lifetime. 'Then I discovered the Bible,' he said. I'm not paraphrasing, he literally concluded with, 'then I discovered the Bible,' as if this made perfect sense.

He and his family converted to the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses and changed their lives forever. And that's a valid choice - of course it is. I would never force the guy to be a doctor or a scientist. But I found it quite sad to see the vacuum between a man with so much passion (an admittedly a touch of naivety) for making the world better and his choice of realising that passion.

This is a common sleight of hand performed by religion - it can make you believe you're actually achieving something, when in reality you're performing through smoke and mirrors. For example, he often states that he believes the world is in a worst place than ever (something I don't agree with, but let's go with it for now) and there is more unnecessary suffering, greed, etc. than we've ever seen. His solution is to turn to God and hope he'll sort it out. As I've often pointed out, if everyone in the world used this method we would be completely screwed. The only way to bring about improvement is by owning the responsibility for that change as human beings. It's easy to defer to a higher power, but that's completely ineffective is nothing more than illusion.

It would have been nice to have another doctor or scientist in the world with the wide-eyed benevolence of my weekly visitor.

January 16, 2013

On the Conflation of Offence

 I'm sure I must have spoken about this before, but here I am, noting it down for official record (when I die, I’m going to insist they read the entirety of this blog aloud at my funeral service).
Recent events regarding transphobic comments, and the defence thereof (the details of which I won't cover as they have been detailed and analysed far more proficiently than I could have*) have resulted in the increasingly common arguments about 'offence'. Typically some factions, the Mail Online included, will tumble between either claiming gross offence themselves or whining about precious little flowers that cry offence at anything, entirely depending on their predefined axioms. This speaks to the heart of the problems with offence in and of itself.
To me, the word 'offence' has lost all useable meaning in this context. It has expanded to encompass everything from the fan-waving delicacy of a 19th century duchess to the furious outrage of a mob bearing fire and pitchforks. Whenever anyone reacts badly to any publication, they are reported as being 'offended', which means..., what exactly? That they didn't like the article? That they disagree with it? That they consider it to be fundamentally wrong to an absolute measure?
I have said fairly often that I don't think anyone has the right not to be offended, and I stick by that. This is part of the essence of free speech and the spirit of public debate, but doesn’t necessarily mean that the people causing offence aren’t being dicks. Some people are offended by the defence of gay marriage and, well, that's tough. Other people are offended by the casual use of the word 'tranny' but, again, it's not the offence that's important.
What we need to understand is the harm and consequence of the countered article. When Julie Burchill, through the Observer, chose to write a ridiculous article riddled with ignorant slurs against the trans community, it wasn't the offence that was important. Granted, upsetting people isn't a nice thing to do, but that's a consequence of speaking openly in a world where people don't agree. What was important about Burchill's article was that it reinforced the consistent dehumanisation of trans people, reducing them to their sexual organs and dismissing their identities and ability to be strong social activists. This societal view of the trans community results in actual harm to the people within it. When real, living people are viewed as either sub-human or less worthy than those crowding around the middle of the bell curve; they are far more prone to open mockery, humiliation and violence.
But  we're not just talking about trans issues, here. Anytime someone writes an inflammatory article or makes a ridiculous public statement that results in people becoming 'up in arms' in response, it is important to ask why. Offence isn't a reason, it's an emotional response. If you call me evil, I'll be offended by that. If you publically call homosexual people evil then they too will be offended, but you may also be damaging the entire homosexual community in measurable ways, be it in the manifestation of bullying, prejudice or delaying equality of marriage.
On the other hand, if a bishop (or whoever) said he found equal marriage offensive to his religion, you could say, 'OK, you are offended, but will allowing homosexual folk to marry bring about genuine harm to Christians/heterosexuals/marriage/society?' As far as my understanding goes, the answer to this is no.

So structuring these arguments around offence is pointless and really only serves to present these conflicts as nothing more than a soap opera. Show me the tangible measurable effects and why they are important.