Friday, October 26, 2012

Moving and Changing

Today I'd like to announce that Zombunist is moving. I'll be joining the Banned Atheists Network, a network of bloggers who have (or will have, there are just two of us now) a wide range of interests but also happen to be atheists. You can find my new site here, though for the next little bit as I get used to the new format I'll be keeping both blogs active. I still plan to focus mostly on zombies, but as time goes on I hope to include more about being a psychology student, and to maybe hone my skills while writing about social justice issues.

My Drymarc blog here on blogger will stay unchanged, as I feel I'm part of a sort of community over there, and the subject matter tends to be more personal.

Thanks to all my readers here, and I hope you join me in my move.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Walking Dead Returns

Before I get into the season 3 premiere of The Walking Dead, here's a little humour to start things off, courtesy of Janeane Garofalo. In her set, she covers zombies, anxiety, sobriety, and peanut butter cups, so obviously she was performing just for me.



So, last week The Walking Dead returned to AMC, and I'm (once again) cautiously optimistic. This show does great premieres. The first episodes of both the first and second seasons were by-and-large great, filled with action and horror and suspense. While I enjoyed much of the first season, though, I had some real problems with season 2. In addition to lackluster writing and poor characterisation, I also found the second season to be filled with "straw-liberals", who dropped leaden dialogue for the purpose of demonstrating how "left-wing" ideals had no place in the cold hard reality of a post-zombie-apocalypse world. The show especially seemed to have no clue how to handle race (by showing us a surprisingly white Atlanta region, with one black character - T-Dog - who doesn't really have much to do) and feminism (by having conflicts between Lori, the emotionally-wrought housewife and Andrea, the civil-rights lawyer who prefered shooting a rifle to helping with the laundry).

Season 3 shows signs of addressing some of these problems. For one, they've excised the straw-liberal characters from the main group (old-man Dale was killed last season, and Andrea was separated from the group and rescued by Michonne, who we will get to soon), which was a good idea. It could free up the group to focus on bare-bones survival instead of endless navel-gazing about the role of humanism in the post apocalypse, but more importantly, it means the writers won't have to stumble over concepts that they don't really understand and put awful, awful dialogue into peoples' mouths.

Second, they've introduced some new characters that set things up for a more realistic view of both race and gender in a post-apocalypse. Some characters we know nothing about yet, as we only see them for a few minutes at the end of the episode, peering at our protagonists through a prison's grated window. But one character, Michonne, got a little bit of promising screen time.

I've been holding my breath waiting to see how they would use Michonne, as she is one of the more dynamic and layered characters in the graphic novel. A samurai-sword-weilding woman of colour, she first appears as a capable survivor, rescruing Andrea last season and in the season 3 premiere taking care of a sick Andrea while fending off zombies in a small town pharmacy. We don't see much of her, but I'm hoping that the show keeps the complexity of her character from the graphic novels.

Further, I'm looking forward to see what travelling with Michonne will do for Andrea's character as well. In the comics, Andrea is my favourite character: a crack shot, canny, compassionate but capable of being hard when circumstances dictate, it was horrible watching her character be dismantled over the course of the second season where she became a bumbling, whining meddler who didn't seem to know when to be quiet and let the men take care of things. Watching her become a cardboard mouthpiece for pre-apocalypse civil rights was the worst thing about last season, especially when contrasting her character to the one in the graphic novels.

Andrea isn't much better here: we first see her huddled on the floor, weak and sick, asking Michonne to leave her. She tells us that she saved Michonne's life during the interval between seasons, but we don't see it, which has been one of the problems with her character last season. She would say she was awesome and independent, but then we would see her almost shoot an ally by accident. My hope is that by removing her from the core group she can leave some of last season's baggage behind, and we may be seeing the beginning of an awesome partnership between two strong women, which is hard to come by on television. Time will tell.

In the graphic novel, the prison/Woodbury storyline is the strongest, so I have high hopes for this season. They've departed from the comic quite a bit in some ways, but almost all the pieces they need to tell a great season of television are in place. If the writing can get past the show's limited ideas of who these people are, they could tell the story of how human beings, as varied and layered as we are, succumb to or overcome tragedy and hardship when all of our luxuries are stripped away, which is the show I want to be seeing this year.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Money, money, money

On a personal note: I have word that my student loan is confirmed for some surely made-up some of money that couldn't possibly be a real number that I will have to pay back in 4 years or so. This means that I can actually be a student, and as an added bonus, pay rent. I hear that being a student is a lot harder when you're homeless.

Okay, I'm hard on Skepchick (and last time I criticized them I was a little bit hasty), but for real it's one of my favourite sites. Still, something Rebecca Watson said in her post asking people to please stop making calendars bothered me a little bit:

3. Sending women to large conferences isn’t that great of a cause. This is something that I’ve debated mentioning here, because I know Skepchick has continued to support scholarship funds like the very successful one Surly Amy has run, but one of the things that annoyed me about the Skepchick Calendars was handing over thousands and thousands of dollars every year to the JREF for tickets for women to go to The Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas, and not really seeing much benefit in return. Yes, I got to meet some great women. Yes, we increased the total percentage of women in the audience at that one conference. Yes, the women I sent had a wonderful vacation in Vegas. But did they really learn anything? Did it help them feel more connected to the skeptical community? Did they go home and get involved in their local skeptical group? I have no idea. I asked many of them to write me an essay on how they benefited from the scholarship they got, and I don’t recall ever actually getting one.
What got me is what if I were one of the women who'd received such a scholarship, reading this paragraph. How would I feel?

At various points in my life, I've struggled financially. There have been times, both as a child and as an adult, that I've lived in a hotel and had no where else to go. The first few years after I joined rugby, I didn't have enough money to participate in the road trips, so the club paid my way. At times, different people have offered me favours and/or items that I otherwise would have had to do without. A friend got me a couch when she realized that I had no furniture. People bought me drinks when they knew I had no money. I've been the recipient of "charity" in various forms.

The worst thing about charity is the assumption that the person giving the charity -deserves- something in return. This isn't to say that I didn't feel gratitude, or that I would have loved to show my appreciation in some way. But being poor is hard. Everything about it is hard. It's basically one giant slog through worry: worry about rent, worry about bills, worry about food, worry about clothes, worry about transportation, worry about appearances, worry about heat, worry about cold, worry about people and/or animals who depend  on you.

When things are good, and I'm not worried about all of those things, I have the freedom to make a choice. You offer to pay for my dinner, and I can decide for myself if I can afford to pay you back next time, or if I can make you a card, or if I have the emotional energy to listen to you complain for two hours straight, and then I can refuse, or negotiate terms.

When things are bad, I can't negotiate. I don't have the brain power to assess the value of what's being given (because for you, $10, for me, it's a MEAL and a host of worries put off until tomorrow). I'm over a barrel. ANY expectation that I give something back is a type of coercion, because I'm not in a position to negotiate.

I'm making a hash of this post, because this sort of thing really, really gets to me. Ugh.


I can understand wanting to make the best use of your resources. I can understand wanting the feedback from where your resources went so that you can assess how effective they are.

But if you have a program in place meant to help people in financial need, you have to understand that by loading extra conditions and expectations along with the "gift" or scholarship, you're placing a greater burden on the people you're trying to help.

If I had been a recipient of a scholarship and saw a comment like Rebecca's, I would have felt ashamed. I would have felt the crushing weight of shame about my poverty. I would have felt anger that even after all this time, by accepting one trip to a conference, there are still expectations. I might have felt used.

The frustrating thing about this is that this point doesn't even have anything to do with calendars. Another frustrating thing is that I'm terrible at articulating my frustration here. I'm sure Rebecca didn't intend to hurt any of the people who received that scholarship, I'm sure she didn't intend to make financial hardship appear to be associated with ingratitude. But that's how it appeared to me.

I gotta go have myself a think.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Resident Evil: Retribution

I didn't make it to my 10 year high school reunion, but I imagine it would have been a lot like this movie: familiar faces, stilted dialogue, some really fun moments, and a lot of things that don't really make sense.

Resident Evil: Retribution starts us up seconds after the last film ended, with Alice (Milla Jovovich) having just rescued dozens of white-clothed humans from the Umbrella Corporation, on a boat in the middle of an ocean. Their happy ending clearly didn't last long, as we see - in slow-motion, time-reversed montage - the refugees come under fire first by airships and then Umbrella Corp commandos, led by Alice's one-time friend and current nemesis Jill Valentine. The attack knocks Alice overboard and we get one final image of her submerged body, silhouetted against the ocean's surface.

The first scene is an example of what to expect. It's beautiful and haunting on the one hand, but sometimes comes across as cliched on the other. I had a blast watching some of this film, but I really couldn't recommend it to anyone except other zombie/resident evil fans, and while it got my heart pumping now and then, I feel like the film had some missed opportunities to really feel like it was a satisfying zombie flick.

First, the good: Alice kicks ass. Jovovich inhabits the role perfectly, moving from action scene to quiet character moments fluidly. The film only truly comes alive when she's in action, especially in the earlier scenes where she's mostly unarmed and has to make do with whatever weapons she can scrounge up, like a heavy chain, perfect for bashing zombies in the face. Because of the central conceit of the film - that she is trapped in an underwater testing facility with different environments created to replicate places like Manhattan, Tokyo, and "suburbia" (where fans like me can watch the standard set-piece of civilians trying to escape a newly-unleashed zombie apocalypse) - we see Alice in a bunch of different scenarios so that the action doesn't really get too stale.

And it was fun to see some familiar faces, especially Michelle Rodriguez, who takes on a couple of different characters, including an anti-gun protestor, which leads to one of the few genuinely funny exchanges in the film. I wish Rodriguez had had more to do, because she was certainly one of my favourite parts of the first film.

Actually, aside from the obligatory "Alice is dressed in a medical napkin tied with string" scene, the best parts of this film belong to the women. The film passes the bechdel test early on, and while there is an all-male task force assigned to rescue Alice (why can't we see any of those guys in napkins?), Alice does quite well on her own, later having to rescue her would-be rescuers in a Moscow car-chase scene complete with James Bond-esque music, soviet zombies weilding rocket launchers and, oh yes, a giant "licker" monster who pursues them into the subway system.

If the movie were able to keep this manic pace going, it would have gotten a much better score from me, but unfortunately the weak paste that holds these awesome parts together is filled with wooden acting, leaden dialogue, and plotting that alternates between non-sensical and ripped off from other movies.

Alice is eventually stuck with "Becky", a young hearing-impaired girl who was Alice's daughter in one of Umbrella Corp's simulations, and while the kid who plays her (Aryana Engineer) isn't too annoying, the fact that she is simply meant to be to Alice what Newt was to Ripley in Aliens, is grating. At one point I fully expected to hear Alice growl "Get away from her, you bitch!" while she rescues the girl.

The movie suffers in the last half, too, because of it's slipshod plotting and characterisation. In the final fight scenes, there really isn't any reason to fear for Alice's safety, and there's no emotional resonance with the other characters. This sapped away the kinetic feel of the action, so that when we're supposed to feel most engaged in the outcome, I felt the opposite, I was just waiting for the fight to be over so we can move on to the next bit.

The door is wide open for a 6th installment, which I'll probably want to see. The character of Alice, as portrayed by Jovovich, is someone that I'd happily follow through the rabbit hole over and over again. At this point, the franchise has its established strengths and weaknesses, so if you've seen previous Resident Evil films, you know what to expect from Retribution and any further installments. I'm giving this film 2.5 severed thumbs out of 5 (I may be grading on a curve), and I'm definitely excited to return to the first 4 films over the next few weeks. Coming soon!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Evolution's Rainbow Part 1

I'm hoping to go see the new Resident Evil movie this weekend, so expect some sort of a review on it next week. I have to say that as a zombie franchise, it's done quite well for itself. I feel like the first movie still holds up as a great and interesting take on the zombie genre, and I'm looking forward to this fifth installment. It occurs to me that maybe sometime soon, I should do a full review-a-thon of the series...maybe I'll start that next week.

Today, though, I plan to conduct a blog-speriment...normally I just write about what I'm thinking and feeling, but I don't really get all rigorous and analytical, which means that when I'm in a debate I can end up appealing to emotion instead of cold hard facts, which means I tend to fail at pursuasion. So, in the spirit of being more, reviewer-y? I'm going to review a science book as I read it! And I'm going to take notes! And be thorough!

My partner's mom takes notes when she reads nonfiction, and that blew my mind! It meant that she had a bunch of talking points handy when she wanted to discuss the subject (the book was "Civilization: The West and the Rest" which is sitting, neglected, on my bedside table because the author's bias is actively hostile toward my bias on the subject of cultural relativity, and so it hurts to read). I've never ever done this before: I barely even used my highlighter when reading textbooks for school, but it seems like a good habit to get into.

So, to start off my blog-speriment, I'm picking up a book that I read some time ago (is this cheating? It's my blogsperiment so I say No) and quite enjoyed, Evolution's Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People by Joan Roughgarden (University of California Press, 2004). My impressions from the book the first time around were that the introduction and first chapter were a little challenging for me in that they seemed to bring in a lot of pseudo-scientific-sounding ideas and suggestions (an early "policy suggestion" is to erect a diversity monument on the West Coast of the US to mirror the Statue of Liberty, which seemed to come out of nowhere and seemed a little too crunchy-granola for my tastes), but that the section on biological diversity when it comes to gender was really eye-opening and seemed scientifically sound. Roughgarden is a biologist by trade and has (according to her intro and the blurb) previously worked on "textbooks, monographs, and symposium procedings" (as a non-scientist, only the first part of that holds any real meaning for me), so I trust her biological standings. The other two parts, on human biology and development and human cultural diversity, left a smaller impact on me the first time around, so we'll see how this goes.

I'm only a couple of chapters in, where Roughgarden is laying down the basic premises of the book. The first chapter deals with sexual and biological diversity as it's been seen in biology. She discusses two broad views in the scientific communities, one that's diversity affirming, the other diversity denying. Guess which view I'm partial to.

She takes aim at Darwin's theory of sexual selection, arguing that it is incomplete at best. Looking at the bulk of species on our planet, sexual reproduction is by far the most successful: most species reproduce sexually, and those animals that don't (excepting some of the simpler life-forms) tend to be the shorter branches on the evoltuionary tree. Reproducing sexually has some kind evolutionary benefit. The diversity denying side argues that sexual reproduction allows harmful mutations to be cancelled out, that sexual reproduction helps to stabilize a species' genetic make-up and reduce the number of mutations in the gene pool. Diversity affirming arguments say that sexual reproduction helps to increase diversity, by allowing variation to spread widely in a population, giving an advantage to some individuals in varying environments (which, welcome to Earth, our environments do indeed vary).

The second chapter gets down to defining sex and gender. Roughgarden is quick to adopt a biological definition of sex as being strictly related to gamete size. In species that produce different sizes of gametes (eg, egg and sperm), the larger gamete is female, the smaller is male. Even at this early stage in the book, it's becoming clear that diversity is the rule in biology, not the exception...while most sexually reproducing species produce two sizes of gametes, some animals (she uses a species of fruitfly as an example) produce more. In the case of fruitflies, there are three sizes of sperm, one gigantic (twenty times as long as the male fly itself), and two smaller, overlapping sizes. While males produce all three, it's theoretically possible that each sperm size could be made by only one type of male, which would mean a species with four sexes. Science! In general, though, sex seems to fall under a binary of large gametes vs small gametes.

Defining gender, though, is much more complicated. Despite our assumptions, gamete size tells us very little about how males and females actually look and behave. A lot of people tend to assume that males are bigger, that females gestate the young, that there are only two genders, that gender is static throughout the life of an organism etc, etc. But there is variation on all of these points. In fact, the idea that our ideas about gender are just "nature's way" falls woefully short in biology: nature uses all the ways nature can get.

The next few chapters deal with sex and bodies, and sex roles, followed by an overview of 2-gender and multiple gender families, so I'll write up a post about those next week...but first, I'll have a post about zombies!!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Atheism Plus, but no zombies (well, maybe a little zombies)

Two posts in a week! I must be CRAAAAZYYYYY!

I actually just wanted to gush a bit more about the new A+ community, and in particular the forums, which are an amazing resource for anyone interested in social justice. My views on this movement are changing as the group evolves, but already I'm learning new things about different groups and perspectives, and I expect to be challenged and to grow over the next few months and years. The response has been amazing, with (I've heard) 1000+ members joining in the last couple of weeks.

The story of how A+ came to be is a long and mostly horrific one, borne out of online misogyny, ignorance, and needless vitriol. I won't go into it in detail, but one of the greater wounds (if I can get dramatic for a second) has been the closing down of Blaghag, a blog written by Jen McCreight, the woman who inspired the whole A+ thing. Basically, she dared to have opinions on the internet while being a woman, and that is Simply Not Done, so in the face of thousands* of hateful comments, emails, tweets, and maybe psychic projections, she's chosen to opt for a bit of reflection and calming meditation (or whatever it is she does to relax....) instead of dealing with assholes on the internet.

But, hey, if I had to leave the internet to get some fricken peace, I could go out a lot worse than inspiring a rejuvenated movement interested in creating a safe space for atheists into social justice. I mean, can an exit get better than that?


Okay, so in the months and months where I was neglecting this blog, I actually consumed a TONNE of zombie stuff, so I presently have a lot of material I can cover without having to venture away from zombieness (which is my true love and passion, obviously). So one more review for y'all:

Survival of the Dead - I finally got around to seeing Romero's latest zombie flick. Now, unlike most of the fandom (from what I can see) I didn't mind Diary of the Dead. Yeah, the found footage thing is getting old, blah de blah, but the film was at least a passable modern day zombie flick with some genuine scares and laughs sprinkled throughout. Survival of the Dead, though....not so much.

Basically, after realizing what a horrible piece of drek it was, and after observing that the ratio of speaking men's roles to speaking women's roles was something like 7 to 1, I decided to play a game: would Survival of the Dead pass the Bechdel Test? I don't want to ruin the fun, so if you want to play, don't read the next paragraph.

So, does the movie pass? Well, if you're playing along at home, you'll have to wait until 1 hour and 14 minutes into the film to find out. Sort of. Because that is the time it takes for the two women with speaking roles (and they have names!) and who are not zombies to be in the same scene. of the women says something. A second later, the other woman says something that may or may not be a response to what the first woman said (they were in a crowd with lots of guys around). Then one of the women gets eaten. Fun!

Other than the amusement to be found with my game, there isn't much else to recommend the film. It doesn't have much to say about society, it doesn't add anything to the zombie genre, while some of the action might be okay, I generally found the film to be kinda lackluster. I think only Romero completists should even bother with this film, because there simply isn't much to recommend it. 1 severed thumb out of five.

*I haven't counted whether it's actually thousands. It may be hundreds. Frankly, 7 (plus or minus 2) hateful comments would be enough to get me to bail, so I think even one or two assholes on the internet is one or two too many.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Atheism Plus Zombies

As an atheist (I still haven't decided how militant I can/should be on that front), I'm pretty darn happy with this Atheism Plus thing. It's no secret to anyone who follows atheism on the intertubes that there have been some spectacular battles over such groundbreaking and controversial issues like cornering women in elevators and whether harrassment policies at conferences are a good thing or else an authoritarian nightmare that will undermine the very fabric of a free society. Furthermore, I've found some pretty unskeptical attitudes in some social justice movements that don't appeal to me, and have contributed to my arms-length distance from some of them. So, to have a group of atheist and skeptical people discussing issues of social justice is something that I will be following for some time.

That's all I'm going to say about that for now.

In zombie news, I've been reading a bunch of stuff lately, some good, some bad, some ugly.

The good:

Blackout by Mira Grant: The 3rd in her Newsflesh trilogy provided a very satisfying conclusion. When I reviewed the first book (Feed) I think I short-changed her on the score. At the time, I felt that the story built to its climax too slowly. That problem was corrected in the sequel, Deadline, and this third book as the action stayed fast-paced and riveting. The protagonists of the series, Shawn and Georgia, are very well-drawn and believable, and while maybe Grant could work a bit more on developing the secondary characters a little more, her focus on the first-person narrators doesn't hurt the story at all. I'm confident that this series is the best zombie lit that I'll read this year. I give it a 4.5 severed thumbs up (or whatever my scoring system is).

The bad:

Shakespeare Undead by Lori Handeland: Okay, so I'll be gentle with this book, because I don't think I'm the target audience. It's a pulpy supernatural romance between William Shakespeare (a two-thousand year old vampire) and his Dark Lady, Kate, who hunts zombies as a hobby while her merchant-noble husband is away in the New World. They fall passionately in love, then kill zombies, then are passionately in love some more, then kills more zombies, then there's an evil vampire and they fight him, the queen of England shows up and they save her, and then they fall in love some more, again, and then some. Part of what threw me was from the very start there's some vaguely heterosexist content where Shakespeare is drawn to Kate while she's disguised as a boy, and he agonizes forEVER about whether he's suddenly turned gay or not, not that there's anything wrong with that. What a friggin' RELIEF when he finds out that his true love isn't a boy but is actually a lady. It was a relief to me, too, because then I didn't have to read about how self-hating Shakespeare expected to become if he actually was gay or bi or whatever. Also, there's some casual racism in there, but whatevs, lighten up, right?

The other thing that bugged me was the plotting or pacing was so, so, SO bad. This book, in order for the zombie threat to actually become threatening, depends on its protagonists saying and doing stupid things (in general, making out) instead of trying to solve the problem. Basically, Will and Kate get attacked by zombies, then, instead of doing ANYTHING to find out about where the zombies are coming from, etc, they just make out and wonder if they should reveal their secrets (Kate is married, Will is Undead: can it ever work???). It's about 75% through the book that Shakespeare actually does anything other than react: he goes to a house and knocks on the door, and then is attacked by more zombies, and later (probably) makes out with Kate some more.

So, I'll say 1.5 severed thumbs out of 5. In this book's favour, the writing is readable, the book has a consistent breezy tone, and it plays with some interesting ideas. I'm not a pulp-romance reader, so maybe this book would be just the thing for someone wanting something light-weight and "fun"(?) for the beach or whatever. It irritated me to no end, but I can't say that I would like the time back that I spent on it.....unlike.....

The ugly:

Autumn: the city by David Moody: This is a lesson for me: any time a zombie novel says, on it's back cover blurb, "there's no flesh eating, no fast-moving corpses, no gore for gore's sake," I need to just WALK AWAY because they are NOT KIDDING. Oh, this book. This horrible, horrible book.

Okay, so, I haven't read the first book in the series (just called Autumn, maybe?), and there are a billion other books after this one. I am unlikely to read those. Basically, this book is a standard zombie apocalypse story, where survivors first experience zombie-onset trauma, then they gather together, then they fight amongst themselves to decide what to do. Except for the first half of the book, the dead people who become zombies? They just stand there. Later on, they reach for you and grab at you, which I can imagine is certainly unnerving, but from what I could see in this book, the zombies are not actually dangerous, except that they crowd and could (presumably) trample someone to death. If a zombie bites or scratches you, do you become a zombie? I don't know, because to my knowledge, no zombie ever bites or scratches anyone in the entire book. The first post-apocalypse death is a suicide when a woman jumps off a ledge because her baby died.

But the zombies in a zombie novel are only one part of the equation. I can see an argument for a really creepy story where the dead just kind of stand there and the survivors are creeped out by that. But if that's the story, I imagine it would depend heavily on the characters. So, how are the characters in this one? Ugh. I don't know. They're all so bland and boring and interchangeable, I ran into trouble later in the book when the cast expanded past "the guy" "the woman" and "the little kid". I kept mixing everyone up. Even the inter-character conflict was so muted and generally polite that when one guy decided to just go and get drunk in a bar to kill himself, I kinda just shrugged. Who was he again? I don't know. Why suicide? I guess he was sad? Sigh.

This book was BORING. I can't even be bothered to raise objections about sexism or whatever, because, really, nothing happened. Most of the world died instantly, some of those bodies started walking around, and the survivors just sit around and mope blandly for however many pages this book has. 0 (that's a zero) out of 5 severed thumbs. Both of the UNsevered thumbs are pointed down.


So, this was my "keep the blog alive!" post. I've been keeping things going at my sobriety blog, and I guess staying sober has been a big focus of my life lately. Now that I'm approaching one year of THAT, I'd like to expand my focus to include other interests, including this blog. We'll see how that goes.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Rant about sexism

I've got a younger half sister, who is of adult age, and she goes on the internet. Especially because I was a teenager when she was born, and I've watched her grow up and develop interests and explore the world in her own way, I'm somewhat protective of her. I'm fiercely protective of her. I am rabidly and perhaps not completely rationally protective of her.

I was raised by a single mom, and as I grew up and began to see that her challenges were different than mine would ever be, I grew to feel protective of her as well. My mom also goes on the internet.

Both of these women are strong people. I've seen them come through difficult times, I've seen them stand up to others for themselves and for those weaker than they are. They are tough, and I'm learning about what it means to be strong in part by watching them go through life.

So when I hear someone call someone a "cunt" or "bitch", when I hear a dude "joke" about how someone "deserves a good raping", or a woman is judged by her attractiveness and sex appeal, or when a guy calls another guy a woman in some way in order to shame him....I think about my sister and my mom and the other women in my life, and I know that somewhere, sometime, some asshole is saying the exact same thiong about them.

When my gay friends joke about bitches and women being crazy or disgusting, I think of my sister and my mom.

When my straight rugby mates talk about women only being good for one thing, I think about my sister and my mom.

I know that what I hear is only a fraction of what women must put up with, and yet I'm already fed up. I am male, but I have serious issues trusting other guys, because the first second that they're in a room by themselves, the second all the women leave, the room fucking changes, and it gets ugly. Not all the time, but it's enough.

My friends are starting to realize that I dislike "gendered insults". I'm speaking up about it, because the right to call someone a bitch does not trump someone's right to live free of harrassment. Call someone an asshole, a fuckwad, a jerk, a loser. Or better yet, argue against their actions instead of the person (because what makes you think they're any more responsible for their failings than you are for yours?). Think about our own mother, your sister, your wife or girlfriend, your daughters, your friends.

It's not a joke if it's hurting the ones you love.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Student Protests

Cromunist says everything I could ever want to about the Quebec student protests.

Most frustrating for me personally? I've talked with students here in Ontario and some of them think the protests are a bad idea. I want to shake rhem and ask "Do you have no sense of self-interest?? We could do that here and tuition would stop going up a hundred dollars every freaking second!"

Sunday, June 3, 2012

We Must Punish Them

So yesterday at the Eaton Centre, a large mall pretty much 3 blocks from my home, a gunman opened fire and killed one man and injured several other people. To my knowledge, they are still hunting the shooter, two people (maybe three?) are in hospital but will probably pull through.

This is obviously a tragedy, horrific, and must have been terrifying to the thousands of people who were in the mall at the time, forced to stampede to safety. Horrible, too, for the family and friends of those who were injured and the young man who was killed. So far as I know, I don't have a personal connection with any of the victims (it's possible, though: a group of my friends were on that corner to see a movie at the exact time. They're all okay, but who knows who else was in the neighbourhood?), so maybe it's that that gives me a feeling of emotional distance.

I've lived in neighbourhoods where a violent crime has happened (3 or 4 years ago a person was shot near a bus stop that I frequently used to get to work, and when I lived in Halifax I was only a few streets away from the infamous "Crack Corner" and came home from work one night to see the security guard mopping up buckets of blood after an older man was beaten savagely by teenagers with baseball bats in my own lobby), so I've come to just acknowledge that violent crime happens, individual instances can't be predicted, and that even when national trends are down, individual events can make make it appear that I am less safe than I actually am.

The popular opinion, at least according to what I've seen in comment threads and after a very brief survey of my social sphere, is that the shooter is a Bad Man and should be brought to Justice. More, people "like him" should be taken into an alley and shot, or, you know, whatever happens to be the most painful and vicious punishment we as a civil society can divise.

I don't know anything about the shooter, who he was or why he did what he did. What I do know is that I am deeply skeptical of the idea of a "Bad Man".

The Bad Man to me is a kind of boogey monster. It's a way for us to simplify the world into easily-digestible concepts. The idea that anyone, even good, basically decent people, could commit atrocious crimes and cause harm to innocents, is a deeply troubling one. This shooter was someone's baby once. It's difficult to think of an innocent child growing up to be a mass killer, and undermines a lot of the ideas we use to help us feel safe and in control of our lives.

So instead we create a category of people who are just "bad". Why are they bad? It doesn't matter, they just are. They aren't like normal people, they aren't like us. They should be segregated and killed. They aren't natural.

I don't believe in monsters. I can think of a few reasons why someone might commit an atrocious crime. Primarily, mental illness and addiction are two right off the top of my head. I have a really hard time thinking of reasons why a healthy, rational person would take a gun to a crowded mall and harm complete strangers who are presumably innocent of any wrong-doing. Faced with the two options, the idea that this shooter is mentally ill in some way seems far, far more likely.

And to my mind, people with mental illness or who are struggling with addiction need help, not punishment.

Recently in the news there was a bit of an uproar because a diagnosed schizophrenic who had killed and eaten people on a bus near Winnipeg was allowed to leave his hospital - under supervision by professionals, note - because of the nature of his crimes. Again, comment threads called for his head. He should be locked up forever, or killed. Because of his actions, he has lost any right to be considered as a human being. He should be put down like a dog.

From a practicality stand-point, people who have harmed others or who are at great risk of harming others should be seperated from society. There's an obligation of the state and society as a whole to protect its members. When I get on a bus, I should feel relatively confident that my seat-mate isn't going to pull a knife on me. But I feel that this is just the begining of responsibility, it's the tip of the iceberg.

At what point do we assign personal responsibility to people for their actions? I'm an alcoholic, though I am not drinking now and have been sober for 8 months. On my sobriety date, did I suddenly stop being a Bad Man? I've done awful things, some things that I will probably never talk about, because of or to fuel my addiction. I understand the need to take responsibility for my actions, because at certain points there were choices that I made. But they weren't rational choices. I was not playing with a full deck. Because of circumstance, it was impossible for me to make the right choice. In fact, I think that when people do make the right choice, it's less about the quality of their character and more because most times the right choice is easier. "Good" people don't do good things because of some innate quality, they do good things because the bad thing has too high a personal cost. As a social species, we've evolved to be very tightly tied to our societies. It's in our biochemistry to obey social norms.

But because of variability, and because the universe is an infinitely complicated place, we get individuals who go against the social norms. Are they themselves at fault? Or is the blame more spread out?

My prefered action in a case like this Eaton Centre shooting is to catch the man, have him evaluated, and then provide whatever support we can to rehabilitate him. Further, we should be putting more money into poverty reduction, improving access to education, and looking into harm-reduction and other ways of helping addicts recover. My solution is very expensive. It's much cheaper to just kill the guy.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Not Cool Skepchick

Skepchick is one of only 4 or 5 sites that I try to check daily, and usually I think it's great, but not today.

Yesterday's "Afternoon Inquiry" was about obesity and while the questions asked sort of set off little warning flags for me, what really did it was the "faceless fatty" that is traditionally used when the media tackles obesity. Because unlike just about every other demographic, being fat is so completely shameful and taboo that we dare not show a fat person with their head when we are talking about their fatness.

In the comments, someone called out Sam Ogden (the writer) for choosing a photo that reinforces the taboo and shamefulness that our society associates with obesity, and, to my surprise, Sam responded by attacking the commenter, saying that they were maybe not ready for grownup conversations and pretty much telling them to stop whining.

This, from the website that brought us elevatorgate? Niiiiice.

A few people also commented about the picture, and when I returned just now, the picture had been changed. To this:

Screen shot 2012-05-11 at 11.00.53 AM

Is that a joke? Is this meant to trivialize the very valid concerns about how obese people are portrayed in the media?

My "best case scenario" is that this was an honest mistake. There's some discussion in the blogosphere about breastfeeding lately, so maybe the picture got misfiled. But lately, life is showing me that I tend to overestimate peoples decency when I try to assume the best case scenario.

I really hope someone apologizes.

Edit:  Oooookay, the clown picture is intentional, but it's meant to represent giving babies McDonalds food, not to trivialize the concerns of the commenters. I'm gonna let things lie for a little bit while I figure out if I'm still mad, and, if I am, why.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

This Just In: It's Not Okay to Criticize White People Anymore!

First, sorry about the lack of updates. I left my last job and so the last month (and probably all of next month) are consumed by job-hunting craziness, and so a lot of my thinking has been directed toward getting myself a job. I'm not prepared to blog here about something that personal and frankly boring. It was beginning to look like the whole month would go by without an entry, but then I stumbled onto an article on the AVClub begging us to please stop talking about "white peoples' problems" because, I guess, it's just not funny anymore.

I forced myself to read through the article, and there are some half-formed points in there that I can get behind, but throughout most of it I just had this poor, poor white people feeling. Being white myself, I gotta say, we got it tough!

First, an acknowledgement: race issues are complex. I understand enough about intersectionality and social justice to know that the world is a very complex place, and it's difficult to condemn or support one position without undermining another. This is one of the reasons why the skeptic/atheist-y blogosphere keeps coming up against these debates on sexism or gender identities or people of colour in the sciences, because even the most well-meaning people can say one thing that on the surface seems liberal and progressive and open-minded, but looked at from a different angle is actually hurtful, privilege-laden, and/or just stupid. I'll probably do it in this post, because my experiences can't possibly have prepared me well-enough to understand what it's like to be non-white, just like I wouldn't expect a heterosexual to completely understand my experiences as a gay man.

I can certainly get behind the idea that "white peoples' problems" as a phrase is problematic, maybe even when used "smugly and reductively" as the AVClub writer Noel Murray describes. But when Murray tries to dig into the issue, he comes off as just another entitled white guy getting upset that now everyone wants to pick on the white guys! Oh Noes!

Basically, worrying about the use of the phrase "white peoples' problems" is, basically, a white person's problem. Last I checked, the numbers for unemployment, poverty, mental illness, violent crime, lack of representation in places of power, addiction, and education issues still show quite clearly that you have less to worry about (statistically speaking) if you're white. The ladder of success you have to climb to achieve your goals is still much, much shorter for white people than it is for people of colour.

The phrase is used, when I've heard it anyway, to illuminate that there is still a discrepancy in these and other issues. It's used to bring perspective to a conversation. Yeah, it's used dismissively, and I can definitely imagine someone using it hurtfully (I'm trying to think of an area where white people maybe don't have it so good right now, and my brain is blanking. All else considered equal, is it EVER bad to be white, statistically speaking?), but I feel that any tool that brings to light the horrible and criminal inconsistencies between groups of people based only on arbitrary features like skin colour or nation of origin is overall a good thing.

As I was reading, though, I wondered about my taking exception to people using "that's so gay." Because I DO take exception to it. Isn't this "white" thing a little bit like the "gay" thing?

Well, no. Not at all. And at it's most simple, I can be verbally and physically harrassed, lose a job or an apartment, or denied the right to, say, marry who I choose depending on where I live (okay, in Canada I personaly don't have it so bad, but ask a high school kid in the middle of nowhere how great and accepting his classmates are). The power and authority is completely in the hands of straight folks. Their using "gay" to mean something negative or lame is not only a direct attack at me and people like me, but it also helps to reinforce inequalities that are a part of the world I live in.

It's not the same for white folks. When someone says "that's so white" they aren't making the disparity between oppressor and oppressed wider. In many ways, they're helping to bring that disparity closer. White folks could stand to be taken down a notch or two, is what I'm saying.

I mean, when Murray writes:
people aren’t sniping about “whiteness” to be funny, or even defiant—at least not entirely. They’re using the term as a form of criticism, meant to be dismissive. “That movie looks very white,” or, “That sounds like music for white people,” is another way of saying, “That can’t be any good.” And I do have a problem with that.
 He's flat-out wrong: being dismissive of the people in power IS being defiant and, often, very funny. And it's too bad that THIS, and not the white-washing (and straight-washing, and cis-washing, and rich-washing) of mainstream media is what he has a problem with.

The article almost gets some traction with the idea that a failed internet connection being a "white persons problem" is dismissive of the fact that people of colour can and do use the internet, and cell-phones, and get cable. so, yeah, he stuff we dismiss as "white peoples' problems" bug people of colour, too: it's just that in addition to all that crap, they also have this whole other pile of stinking crap they have to wade through as well, because, y'know, they aren't white.

There's a last-minute attempt at the end of the article for readers to suggest media produced by people of colour so that all of us white folk can brush up on our diversity, so that's nice I guess. But basically, until we actually have equality between white folk and not-so-white folk, I encourage all of you to keep on using "white" as a perjorative.


On a completely different subject, and to bring in some zombie stuff, I saw Cabin in the Woods last week and overall enjoyed it, though I feel like it was a bit of a step backward for the folks who once worked on "Buffy" from a feminist angle. Not gonna go through it (for fear of being spoilery?), but I feel like the "last girl" was rescued one or two many times, and not really in a self-aware, parodying sort of way.

And that's all for now!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Open Letter to Metro's The Scene

In today's copy of Metro, the free daily newspaper, there was a column about Jenna Talackova, a transgender woman who was disqualified from the Miss Universe Canada competition and is challenging that decision as a case of discrimination. The column argued that Jenna should just accept it, because she shouldn't have lied about her gender on the application. This is the email I sent. Oh, and the title of the article? "There he is, Miss Universe Canada?" Horrible. You can send an email to complain to

Dorothy Robinson,
In 1916 when Manitoba was the first province to give women the vote, I am certain that there were people who argued that the country wasn’t “ready” for it. When Rosa Parks in 1955 decided to disobey the bus driver’s order to move to the back, she faced more than her share of disapproval. The fact is, the fight for equality is always an uphill battle, and sometimes it takes people breaking or bending the rules to get there.
You may not be aware, but transgender people are not protected from discrimination in the Human Rights code of Canada. They are also one of the most vulnerable demographics for violence, discrimination, and abuse. In the media, transgender people and issues regarding anything beyond strict adherence to traditional gender roles is almost exclusively portrayed in a negative light or as something to be mocked. People like Jenna Talackova face the threat of violence and harassment on a daily basis.
Your column begins with an insult in the title, calling Jenna Talackova a “he”. That is an insult to her, and to all transgender people, and a clear sign that they are still not regarded as equals for who they are, and instead must face constant discrimination for something that is beyond their control and does not harm anyone.
Transgender people face a catch-22 when asked to state their gender on a form. If a transgender person states the gender they identify as, they risk being called a liar or worse, and if they state the gender they were born as or assigned, they cause confusion when they present as something completely different. Imagine if you were told every day that you were not a woman? No matter what you feel, deep in your core, every person you met told you that you were wrong. How is that any way to live?
This is clearly a case of discrimination, and just like before women got the vote and before the civil rights movement, it is an uphill battle to convince the rest of the world that there is a problem. Well, there is a problem and it isn’t with transgendered people, it’s with the rest of us.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Please sign this petition - Protect Trans people from Discrimination in Canada

Hey folks, just like the title says sign this petition! Also, pass it on to any Canadian you know. I'm not an expert, but trans people are not protected in Canada on our Human Rights Code. There is a bill to be presented next month, and maybe we can bring something into action even with a Conservative majority.

Beards and politics

So, there is now a new leader of the NDP, and obviously the big story is whether or not his beard will prevent him from becoming Prime Minister. I'm partial to beards, I like them, in just about any shape or size ( for the pencil-line chin strap. I guess I am prejudiced against pencil-line chin straps unless done ironically. And even then....). I support the NDP's choice of a bearded leader.

Beard or no, I still miss Alexa McDonough.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Liar, Lunatic, or Lorax asks us to check our privilege, and today I can say that I am very privileged indeed. I am able-bodied, male, white, and adult well before retirement age, literate, employed and employable, articulate, with a good support network, a roof over my head and food in my belly.

In some areas I am less privileged: I have and do face occasional discrimination due to my sexual orientation (but again, I live in a time and place where the discrimination I've faced (that I'm aware of) has been limited and minor). I have a few mental health issues (primarily depression, anxiety, and an alcohol addiction which I am currently treating via sobriety). That's about it, actually.

I haven't always been so lucky. While I would not say that we were poor, when I was growing up my mom did struggle to raise me and my brother. There were times where we lived in a motel for weeks as we had no other place to stay. My mom has struggled with employment at various points in her life, and, as an adult, so have I. I have also lived in a hotel because I had no other options (don't tell mom!). I've also stayed in worse places than a hotel. My (thankfully) brief experience with homelessness was fueled in large part because of my mental health issues, primarily my alcoholism, and so at the time it was difficult to explain to my friends the kind of trap that I was in. I do not have any friends left from that period of my life: anyone I'm friends with now, I knew from before or after that 2-year period, five years ago.

I don't write much about poverty or mental illness, because to me they hit too close to home. Both conditions are incredibly isolating. If you aren't poor, it is impossible to really understand the toll it takes on every aspect of your life. To those of us with good jobs (or good-enough jobs), it can seem like laziness for someone to be unemployed. After all, getting a job is simple: you send your resume, someone calls you, you do a few interviews, and then bam, you've got the job. All it takes is for you to work hard and to be a good person.

But for anyone who has been poor knows that that's a bunch of bull. How do you send a resume if you don't have the internet or even a computer? What if you have difficulty with reading? What if you don't have a good suit, or the one suit you do have is ten years old and is fraying at the ends? How can you pay for several bus trips to reach multiple interviews? How do remain calm while answering questions when you know that there are kids at home that have been living on one meal a day for weeks? How, when the world seems stacked against you, do you maintain that state of "hope", which one person told me is the key missing element for people who are poor, and the reason why they can't get out of it? (As in, "If those poor people weren't just so hopeless and despairing all the time, maybe they could get some jobs!")

Mental illness is another difficult challenge that, unless you deal with it yourself, is hard to understand. For most humans, we tend to attribute our bad characteristics to circumstance, but other peoples' bad characteristics are attributed to character. If I can't get up in the morning to go to work, it's my depression, but when my colleague can't it's because he's lazy.

It's interesting, but not all that surprising, that these two conditions are often paired. Mentally ill people are more likely to be poor, and poor people are more likely to be mentally ill. I bet if someone looks, I'd expect to see a bit of a feedback loop here. Poverty is incredibly stressful, and everything about it is perfect for aggravating most kinds of mental illness, and mental illness can make it impossible to hold all but a few kinds of jobs for any length of time.

I don't have much to add to the discussion, except that I'm very glad that Lorax's privilege list includes poverty- and mental illness-related issues, because I know from my experience that there's a lot of folks out there who need to check their privilege before I'll talk with them on those subjects again.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Lady Scientists and the Age of Wonder

This entry will be wikipedia-heavy, be-warned.

One of the best ways to demonstrate the existence of sexism in science is to ask people "How many scientists can you name?" and then ask, "How many women scientists can you name?"

I don't do very well here, because off the top of my head, without looking it up, I get three: Jane Goodall, Marie Curie, and Roberta Bondar. They're all on the list because of entirely self-centred reasons: Goodall because I like biology, Curie because she's french and was a bit loony about those magic rocks of hers, and Bondar because I did a project on her in junior high, she's Canadian, and a neurologist (which is what I wanted to be once upon a time).

Three is definitely not enough (I'm not counting bloggers that I read, because for most of them, like Isis, I don't know their real names). I mean, I can count ten male scientists right away.

Well, I am now able to add a fourth name, the luminous Caroline Herschel, "Lady Astronomer". I'm reading a great book about the scientific trailblazers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries called "The Age Of Wonder: How The Romantic Generation Discovered The Beauty And Terror Of Science" by Richard Holmes, and he devotes a lot of time to Caroline Herschel and how she helped to shape astronomy in ways that we are still affected by today.

She was the sister of William Herschel, most celebrated for his discovery of Uranus, which was the first new planet to be discovered in our solar system since Jupiter, thousands of years earlier, and it's very reasonable to assume that William would not have found his great success had he not had his sister by his side. Their life stories are deeply intertwined. William was much older than she was, and rescued her from a bleak life with her neglectful family in Germany, whisking her away to England where he was established as a musician and was just beginning to delve the depths of the skies. Together, they developed a strategy of "sweeping" the heavens, methodically using their self-created telescopes to methodically scan the skies, cataloguing every star and nebula and making notes of any unusual thing they saw.

One of William Herschel's more famous achievements was his giant, 40 foot telescope, basically the Hubble Telescope of its day (with the same history of technical difficulties), but even before the 40-footer was made, the telescopes he used most often were unweildy and required great help from an assistant for him to use them to any effect. And for William Herschel, the only assistant who would do was his beloved sister Caroline.

It would have been impossible for Caroline not to learn something about astronomy after assisting her brother night after night, and over time she began to be recognized as a talented astronomer herself: she discovered several comets and received a lot of recognition from the Royal Society and other groups, which was nearly unheard of for women in those days (and really, has that much changed? See my opening paragraph).

While Age of Wonder is a great read all the way through (er, actually, not finished yet, so the last third could be terrible, I guess), the chapters devoted to Caroline and William are the ones that really grab me, and give me a better sense of what the world was like in that place and time. I'm grateful to Richard Holmes for including her story and if anyone out there has more books about women in science, let me know! Because, 4 female scientists on my list is still pitiable (er...and don't ask me about people of colour in science. Which you won't. Because other than  Neil deGrasse Tyson we know they don't actually exist).

Thursday, March 15, 2012

What if your mom had an abortion?

Comics are amusing in a lot of ways, not the least of which is how my perceptions of them have changed. When I was a kid, I was a huge Garfield fan, though not so much anymore (but the Garfield Minus Garfield strip is worth a read). I was not a big Doonesbury fan until I was well into my 20s, though. Of course, right now Doonesbury is getting a bump in the ratings due to the abortion storyline, examining the bizarre and crazy anti-abortion laws imposed by Texas and several other states to limit women's rights in what they do with their own bodies. Guess where I stand on the issue.

One of the comments that seems to come up whenever abortion is discussed is "Well, how would you like it if your mom had had an abortion?" The point being that every fetus has a potential and is therefor equal to an actual human life. By aborting a fetus, we are destroying the potential of another person coming into their own and having the chance to live a full and wonder-filled life.

So, how would I, personally, feel about the idea of my mom aborting me?

I love my mom. She's been a great mom, and a lot of what I value in myself, I learned or inherited from her. She raised two boys, a lot of the time by herself because my dad's work, then their divorce, meant that he wasn't always around (my dad's great, too, in his own ways, but a very generous assessment would show him being my primary caregiver for about 1/7th of my childhood, which was the every-second-weekend visit). In some ways, I imagine, my mom might have had a better life if she hadn't become pregnant with me (before my parents were even married yet! Shocker!): she might have had more opportunities, she certainly wouldn't have lived the same life. Raising two kids on your own makes it difficult to be a go-getter at work, I imagine.

Personally, I love my life. Yeah, I could make better choices, but overall I'm happy I was born.

But here's the thing: ultimately, I know that my mom chose to have me. Yeah, there were pressures that affected her decision, but because of Canadian Law and the culture at the time she was pregnant, my mom had the choice available to her. I know that, once I was conceived, I was wanted.

I respect my mom, not because she's my mom, but because she is a force of nature. She is intelligent, and kind, and compassionate, and funny, and she gets angry sometimes, and sad sometimes, and goofy to the point of cringe-worthiness. As I've gotten older, I've watched her make decisions: about her career, about dating, about where to live and who to live with. Some of her decisions weren't great, and I imagine that some of her choices were actually disasterous. But as someone who loves her and cares for her deeply, I would not want to remove her power to make decisions for herself.

The question of "what if your mom aborted you?" is so backwards to me. What if she had? I would rather that she made that difficult choice, and had the resources and support to make it safely and sanely, than for her to have been forced to use her own body in a way she did not want because some stranger had made the decision for her. I would give my hypothetical life so that she would have the right to make decisions for herself as an adult and a human being. I mean, how selfish could I be? If I value my life, then I need to value hers and her choice to have me.

The world is full of potential, and for everything that actually does happen, there are, literally, an infinite set of other things that didn't. There's a sense that people who argue against abortion along these lines are thinking compassionately about the child, but they might as well by fighting for Unicorn Rights. Did you know that everytime a man jerks off, a unicorn is brutally tortured and put to death? End the tyranny of male masturbation now!

Like any good leftist liberal, I'll agree that this isn't a situation to be dealt with lightly. Life and death are important, and how we act, the decisions that we make, will inevitably be individualistic and unique each and every time. To me, it's hugely more important that people have the right to choose rather than have that decision imposed upon them by a faceless organization that has no knowledge of the factors and the possibilities involved. What about all the young women's lives who have been damaged because they were forced to carry a child to term?

What if my mom had aborted me?

Well, then I would take comfort that she lived in a society where her rights were respected and protected, and where she chose her fate. What kind of a monster would force his own mother to live a life she never wanted?

Friday, March 2, 2012

Video Games and Sexism

According to the Penny Arcade Report's story about a reality fighting game competition (that's a reality show about people who play video games of the fighting variety, eg Tekken, Streetfighter, etc), sexism is a part of the culture and so it's all okay.  My favourite part was:

"...the fighting game scene is a chance for them to relax and be themselves, away from an insane, politically correct culture,” a member of the Shoryuken forum wrote. “For some guys, being themselves means making mildly lecherous comments or racial jokes."

If "being yourself" means making lecherous comments or racial jokes then you just happen to be a jerk and the rest of us don't need to give you any special compensation for that.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Is your heart fonder? Due to all the absence and all...

My apologies for the long wait between updates. I was on vacation last week in sunny Niagara Falls, ON, and so was away from the computer. But fear not! I have a list of blogging topics and have recently gotten my hands on several new zombie books, including Theories of International Politics and Zombies by Daniel Drezner, which I had been covetting for a long time. My thoughts on that, along with my review of Deadline, and a few other odds and ends should appear here later this week.

In the meantime, I need to catch up on news and reading and blogs and stuff....

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Deconstructing the Boys' Club

Over on Skepchick,  Jacqueline posts about the "Boys' Club" and how a woman can "infiltrate" it, by working hard, speaking up, and getting involved. And not having sex with the guys until she has her membership locked in. The advice in the article is useful in general, and anyone on the outside of power or privilege would be well-advised to follow her a point.

I had a little problem reading the article, though, and it was because it bared a sort of similarity to other articles written, where the underlying assumption is that the reason why women aren't in more positions of authority is because they just didn't want it bad enough. Too often, it seems that the reason for women's failures are that they didn't speak up, they didn't ask for the raise, they didn't report the sexual assault at the right time, they didn't wear the right dress and that's why they were raped. While Jacqueline's post is positive, and avoids laying blame anywhere, I feel like the larger part of the problem is ignored. But that's okay, because the post wasn't about how men are evil, it was about actions that women could take to improve their situation.

The larger part of the problem isn't really that men are evil (obviously), but it's that the playing field is so overwhelmingly tilted against women, and it will remain that way until men get their shit together and start paying more than lip service to the idea of equality and equity. And, because I'm so darn helpful, here are some ways that men can help women to get into the boys' club (if you wonder why we should want this, you might be reading the wrong blog):

1) Acknowledge contributions - it's true that women (and other minorities, really) need to work twice as hard to get half the credit. There are a lot of reasons for this, including our own biases. Because of the way we've all been socialized, we naturally attribute some qualities to men and other qualities to women whether or not they've actually demonstrated those qualities. For a man to appear hard-working, all he has to do is show up. One thing that men can do is to carefully and consciously look for and acknowledge or reward when a woman has gone above and beyond. Not patronisingly, but frankly and honestly. Take a long hard look at who is being rewarded and why, and do your best to overcome your own bias. Sometimes we miss things that are really, really obvious, and we need to put in extra effort to see what we are missing. Who gets the promotions? Who gets the bonus? Who gets the congratulatory emails? When in doubt, side with the minority: they have so many other obstacles to overcome, it would be nice if you can give them a break, even if you're wrong once in a while.

2) Leave space for others to speak - women are socialized to defer to men, and men are socialized to speak up. Years ago, while training to volunteer on a gay youth helpline, one of the subjects we covered was how people with privilege often have the assumed right to speak, and so entire meetings can happen where only one point of view is ever spoken. For anyone who's ever been in a group situation where your opinion differed from the group's, you know how difficult it can be to speak up. The next time you're in a meeting, pay attention to who speaks, and how many times someone is interrupted or ignored. Unless there's been a massive shift, you'll see that most often men speak. When women do try to add their opinion, they're more likely to be interrupted, ignored, or dismissed. Try to be aware of this and allow space for other viewpoints to be expressed. If you're chairing the meeting, give time to the people most different from you to speak. They will probably have an insight that you hadn't considered, and you'll also be showing that you support an environment where different perspectives are appreciated and welcomed.

3) Invite people. If you're organising a conference, and realise that all or most of your speakers are straight white men, do some research and change it. This isn't token-ism, its due diligence. Rare are the professions where there are no experts with diverse backgrounds. It's a giant planet we live on, and we tend to only pay attention to the meagre little circle of colleagues and acqaintances that we already know. Also, there's this thing? Called the internet? Use it. If you can't find a person of colour, a woman, a differently abled, a queer speaker, you are doing it wrong. Right now, it takes a bit of extra work, but that's because the playing field is not level. One of the ways to get that field level is for those of us with the advantages to put in the legwork to give some advantages to other people. Awards, panels, discussions, lead teams....if you've only got men, you've got work to do.

4) Give respect. To a degree, respect is earned. But there is room for all of us to decide on a base level of decency and regard that we can give to every human being we encounter. Examine where this level is for you, and whether it is consistent across genders, cultures, and ranges of ability. Take the time to learn a little bit about the psychology of bias, and examine where your prejudices may lie (if you're human, you have prejudices). Then, do what you can to overcome those biases. Acknowledge that some people have had to work twice as hard as you did to reach the same achievements, and be prepared to give the benefit of the doubt. Consider the other side of things, the other person's perspective. Think of them as a person.

Boys' clubs don't really help anyone. Individuals profit from them by getting privileged access to information and power, but as a whole what they really do is limit our vision and hamper our ability to make decisions. When you only have one "kind" of person in charge, important factors get missed and catastrophes can happen that could have been avoided. By making room for different perspectives and experiences, you allow your organisation (or whatever it is) to open up more opportunities for enrichment. Oh, and also you get to be a pretty decent human being as well.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Drinking and sex - is it rape?

I just had one of those surprising breakthrough moments where I read something and my opinion is changed. On Almost Diamonds, Stephanie Svan talks about an an unfortunate response in an advice column about a woman who drank too much, had sex with some guy, and now feels that she was raped. The advice columnist was a douch, basically saying "Well, I hope that girl learned her lesson: drinking leads to unwanted sex! Let's hope she makes better choices in the future!"

And, yeah, there are actions that people can take or not take that increase or decrease the risk of bad things happening to them, but even so, that sort of response, based on the limitted information available, is a sign that something is wrong.

Last night, I forgot to lock the door before I went to sleep. This pisses off my boyfriend to no end, because he grew up in the Big City, and to him, an unlocked door is just asking for robbers and murderers to come and pillage. It doesn't matter that I knew he was coming home from work 30 minutes after I drifted off, according to him I took a giant risk by not locking the door while I was unconscious and basically helpless.

Now, leaving aside how much risk I was actually in (we live in an apartment building, on a high floor, where we know our neighbours, and there is security for the building), what if someone had come into the apartment, brutally stabbed me, and left me to die?

Well, obviously the police would come, realise that I had left the door unlocked, and sadly inform my distraught partner that unfortunately I'd taken a big risk by not locking up, so really they couldn't be bothered to investigate and bring the murderer to justice. After all, I was practically begging to be killed.

Okay, no. But isn't it funny that while many people would say that rape is horrible, even worse than murder, when someone's killed we blame the murderer, but when someone's raped, we look at the victim's actions and ask what they should have done differently?

My analogy is flawed, but it points to something about how we treat victims, particularly women, of sexual violence (I think we also might do something similar with visible minorities, too, come to think of it).

The opinion of mine that changed, or at least solidified, is that if the person you are talking with has had too much to drink, it is risky business to assume that they've given consent. If your intention is to be a good person and to not knowingly inflict harm on others, this is just one of those cases where you need to be aware and make very, very certain that you are not taking advantage of someone.

Now, in the comments below, one guy jokes:

Using that logic, I guess I was a serial rapist throughout most of my college years….

Well...maybe you were?

I mean, the commenter might be a perfectly nice guy and all, but really, if he was going out and banging drunk college chicks, how many of those women regretted it the next day? There's no way to say.

And the problem is that our culture gives more weight to a man's right to have sex than to a woman's right to be protected from unwanted sex. The messages we send out are that women need to be vigilant, but we don't go out of our way to tell guys to be careful about where they stick it because they could be unwittingly taking advantage of someone else.

Why should the onus be on guys? Because of the power differential: from basic physical strength to social power and authority, guys tend to be on the upper hand. It's a lot harder for a woman to have her wishes listened to than for a guy. It's a lot more difficult, for a variety of reasons, for a woman to be heard, to get a man bent on sex to stop.

Should guys never have sex if their partner's a little tipsy? Well, this is where nuance comes in. We're complex creatures capable of making complex decisions, giving different weight to different factors. Do you know the woman? How well? How much have each of you had to drink? Are you in a relationship? Is she happy? What does her body language say?

Because unwanted sex can have such an impact on the victim, again, if you want to be a good person, you need to consider these and other factors before you act. If you are having sex with someone who is drunk, you could be potentially raping them.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Words and Rainbows

I can remember the first time I heard the term "genderfuck." I was a young gay, attending a meeting of the Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Youth Project in Nova Scotia (sponsored by Planned Parenthood, an organisation that will always always always have a special place in my heart) and one of the members had been to a meeting of the Radical Faeries (I memory gets dusty in my old age) and was showing us pictures. I don't know if it's because I learned the term in such a warm and open environment, surrounded by people who cared about each other and encouraged diversity, but I adore the phrase.


As in, fuck gender. As in, we're fucking with gender. As in, its my gender, and I get to fuck with it. As in, fuck your preconceived ideas about what I can do with my gender. It's offensive, aggressive, but open and welcoming at the same time. I love it.

Since then, I've met a lot of people, and I've been lucky enough to meet them where they could be comfortable and be themselves. I've learned new words, or heard old words used in new ways. I've seen people joyfully take the sting out of insults, taking pride in their identities or else gleefully or angrily destroying the identities thrust upon them. As someone who reads a lot, I love language, and I think that no one else has as much fun, is so inspired, has such an awareness of the power of words as the Queer community(ies).

I just read a link about trans vs trans* where near the end Static Nonsense writes:

Many people, including myself, want to move away from this linear progression that assumes things like surgical procedures and Gender Identity Disorder with all of its baggage, and instead look at things more from the angle of self identity, expression and the effects of socially constructed differences in gender. Because things like genital and surgical essentialism isn’t cool and erases a lot of people who don’t want surgical reassignment or may not even have access to it for reasons such as medical, financial, even cultural. If anything, maybe we should branch away from such terms, instead going with something that focuses more on the concept of gender identity and what it means for people on an individual basis instead of building off of assumptions regarding one or a few groups.

And that last part about identity being about the individual resonates very strongly with me. A few years ago I read an awesomely comprehensive book called Evolution's Rainbow by Joan Roughgarden about the incredible diversity in gender, sexuality, polyamory and all that in the animal kingdom. Pretty much, if you can think of it, an animal's done it. Before there was the internet to pornify everything, animals were already there. And more and more as I think about human gender, sex, and relationships, the more I realize that it is individual. The concept of a binary anything is woefully incomplete, and I'm so incredibly thankful for the people who are challenging our ideas through their choices of language and how they identify themselves, even if they choose to eschew labels or even violently attempt to destroy labels.

The infinite diversity in the ways we see ourselves, our longings and passions, our hopes, fears, desires, and perversions, is something beautiful about life, and humans in particular. The more we learn about ourselves, the more clear it becomes that there are very, very few hard and fast rules, and that change and variation are intrinsic to our existence. The more I learn about our differences, especially from the people who seem to inhabit spaces I never knew existed, the more amazed I am at the complexity and beauty of our planet. I hope that one day, everyone can see the beauty inside of each of us, and maybe one day the people who are now considered gender outlaws and deviants will be seen for what they are: uniquely beautiful individuals who give us a glimpse into the true diversity of the universe.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Job Hunting Tips!

I may have mentioned that I'm taking night classes. The goal is to achieve my Human Resources Management certificate, which will then lead to fame and fortune...or at the least another step in my career path. I'm not quite sure why I have a career path, because it doesn't feel like a "me" thing...I'm a bit too sketchy and disorganised. Until now I've mostly had a career meander, but since 2012 is the year of "Get 'er done," career path it is!

Last night we discussed recruitment and selection, which is an area that's interesting to me, especially the selection part. I have a hunch that I might be good at that, so I'm interested in learning more. One of the things that interests me about selection is that to be good at it, to be able to discern the best fit for a position based on very little evidence, you need to overcome your own bias and be able to analyze and weigh data appropriately.

We discussed some types of bias, like the "Halo/Devil Effect", where one event or characteristic colours the interviewer's perception of the entire candidate. For example, if the person I'm interviewing went to my old high school, and I have fond memories of my old high school, I may ignore evidence that demonstrates the candidate is not a good fit and focus only on the good stuff. Or the bad stuff if I hated high school. I think I actually suffered from this the first time I had a chance to interview people for a position a few years ago: one of the two candidates gave a good interview, but he made one comment that made him appear lazy, even though it was clear to me that he was not lazy. Just the way that he phrased it rubbed me the wrong way, and I used that gut feeling to convince myself this candidate was not right for the job. The person we hired was a disaster, though, and I wish I'd done my part in the process differently.

We talked about other things in this vein, some of it I remember from my old psych courses, like the primacy and recency effects, where the first and last people that you interview in a day tend to be the most memorable, and the comparison fallacy, where we tend to compare candidates to each other rather than to the requirements of the job, which could lead you to make a bad hire just because a mediocre interview happened to follow a string of bad interviews and so seemed great by comparison.

One of the principles of an interview method we talked about (behaviour-based interviewing) that I really liked was the idea of seeking contrary evidence, where the interviewer becomes aware of an assumption or conclusion they've made about the candidate, and intentionally looks for examples that contradict it. Say, for example, I'm interviewing someone and I start to suspect that they have a problem with following process. Instead of asking questions to confirm this idea, I should be asking questions to probe for evidence of when they did follow process. The idea is to not let my own biases guide the interview, which could pigeonhole a candidate and give me a one-sided picture of their abilities.

It's early days yet, but if I were to specialize in diversity under the HR banner, selection would be a great place to start. Last year I read a book by Anthony Stewart, You Must Be A Basketball Player, about racism and prejudice in academia, and it discussed a few of the ways that our own processes and systems in our institutions can help to support bias, which leads to universities with entirely white Humanities departments, even in communities and populations where you might expect - all things considered equal - a higher proportion of people of colour. How we select people in the job interview process is certainly one of the areas that hidden biases can have a real, negative impact on peoples' lives, especially minorities of all stripes. I believe that skepticism is a valuable tool in fighting social inequality, so it's interesting to see some of these concepts being used in the hiring process.

BUT you aren't reading this post for my musings on bias and selection! You are reading it because it says "Job Hunting Tips!" in the subject heading! And I put that there, because the last half hour of our class was dedicated to the instructer giving us tips on how to pursue a position ourselves! Most of this is somewhat common sense, but it's always useful as a refresher.

First, the resume: the resume should not be too long (less than 3 pages), should be HONEST, and should have absolutely no mistakes. I've been guilty of the occasional typo, so let someone proofread your resume.

Second, the cover letter: the cover letter should address the position, and include specific examples. So, if the job posting says "looking for people with strong organisational skills", include your abilities to organise in the letter and provide an example of how you've used those skills at work (eg "I redesigned our filing system to improve efficiency" or what have you). Bonus points go to cover letters who show that the candidate is familiar with the company and has actually done some research.

Which leads to the interview. The biggest tip? Be prepared! Look up the company on the internet, look at its web site, look for recent news articles about accomplishments and achievements. From the job posting, try to anticipate the types of questions you'll be asked, and again, have specific examples of situations to demonstrate key skills. Practice answering these questions with a partner.

At the interview itself, keep your hands free: playing with a pen, keys, etc, can be a distraction. If offered coffee or water, you may want to decline, because if you're nervous, you might spill. If it's a panel interview, make sure you're making eye contact with each of the interviewers, even when they are not the one asking the question. If you're the sort to take notes, keep in mind that having your head buried in your notebook during an interview could leave the wrong impression. Keep your hands dry so as to give a good handshake! And dress one notch above what you expect to be wearing to work in this position. For a business casual-type environment, for example, I would dress in my best work-wear, and would wear a tie and blazer, even if that's slightly more put-together than I would be required if and when I start the job.

After the interview, you can send a thank you note, but play this carefully. It should be brief and to the point, and isn't an opportunity to "do-over" questions you think you flubbed. Oh, and WARN YOUR REFERENCES, let them know that you are interviewing, for what positions, and what skills you'd like them to highlight.

Simple, eh?

Friday, January 27, 2012

Can You Survive the Zombie Apocalypse? Book Review

For Christmas I got a shiny, shiny gift card for our local mega-conglomerate big box book store, and just before leaving for Boston I cashed it in. Along with some other books (including Deadline, the second in Mira Grant's Newsflesh trilogy, which I will review here soon, promise), I also bought Max Brailler's Can You Survive the Zombie Apocalypse, a choose your own adventure-style book about dancing penguins trying to break into show business surviving the zombie apocalypse in Manhattan.

I bet many people my age have fond memories of the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books, along with its various knock-offs and variations (I was fond of a series written by a role playing creator team that made you role dice and everything!), so combine that with a zombie apocalypse, and I would be lying if I said that my expectations were high, so I'll own up to that.

But even if we adjust for overly-high anticipation, this, at best, is a mediocre zombie apocalypse book. It is also, at best, a mediocre choose your own adventure book.

Brailler's writing is good enough: he has enthusiasm, which is good, and he clearly has an understanding of the genre. The 3 "adventures" that I took involved underwater zombies, stripper zombies, and comic-book-convention zombies, which are all bright spots in zombie lore. Brailler also has a clear love of the city in which the action takes place. I've been to New York a few times, and this struck me very much as a book written by a New Yorker. There's a sense of fun, a sort of wink-wink-nudge-nudge, that infuses the pages and makes me feel a little bad about not liking the book as much as Max Brailler clearly does.

There are a few problems with Can You Survive: the first is that while the author clearly knows and understands the source material, the reader is plunked into the shoes of someone who clearly does not. The protagonist ("You") fumbles from one encounter to another, making the sorts of choices that make horror movie-seers groan in disgust. As the adventure was beginning, before my first choice was offered, I was busy taking stock of the situation, paying attention to details, trying to form a plan of attack to survive. I needn't have bothered, because at the junctures that I thought might be a good place for me to choose, Brailler instead railroads me into his own choices. Not even seconds after I've gotten to the "safety" of my apartment, the phone rings, it's mom, and my character decides to cross the city to reach her for no good reason. Time and again, junctures where a decision or choice might have been nice, the choice isn't offered, and even when I do make a decision circumstances conspire to erase the consequences of my choice so that I'm forced into ever-more ridiculous situations against my will.

The second big problem is the ridiculousness. It seems strangely misplaced here. Spoiler alert, but one of my adventures ended with me sitting on the arm of the statue of liberty, waiting for an airlift that might never come. What? Is that even possible? Another involved George Romero being the King of the Zombies. The last had me following a stripper-slash-ninja through the city to find her baseball hero boyfriend for an airlift out of a yankees game. I can see the whimsy. I know that really, really bad jokes are ALSO a staple of the genre. Just, the execution didn't work for me.

The biggest problem, the one that made me stop at 3 adventures, is my own fault. Unfortunately, I am not a heterosexual male who is so easily distracted by his penis that he will forget about the apocalypse for a little T and A. In the stripper-slash-ninja storyline, every chapter involves me oggling my would-be savior. I suppose the fact that she's a martial arts expert means that she is "empowered" or something, but really? Yes, the kick-ass girl is a trope of horror and sci-fi. Geeks really like half-naked ladies who can weild a katana, I guess. But that doesn't make it right.

The thing is, there's a subtle difference between honouring established traditions in a genre, and just repeating them, and Brailler doesn't add anything new. I found this book frustrating, and not very fun. The adventures start out bland, you can't make any good decisions, and then they just go crazy without actually going crazy. The book is challenging in all of the wrong ways. I will give it one and a half severed fingers out of five.

Friday, January 20, 2012


So, I work in the temporary employment industry, which is probably giving me a lot of insight into that aspect of equality, equity, etc (if so, I'm not sure what, but I've gotta be absorbing something on some level). I deal with a lot of different people, mostly by phone, clients and employees (temp and perm), and usually talk about payroll, but sometimes I need to pass on information about taxes, employment insurance, garnishments, etc.

Today, after I'd answered a lady's questions about some documents she's requested, out of the blue she suddenly started asking me why we keep letting immigrants into our country to steal all of our jobs. Cripes.

Listen, if you want good service, please try not to rope your phone rep into a discussion about politics. I mean, it's a risk she took I suppose. It's possible that I might have been completely on her side and agreed with her and we'd laugh about how awful it is for us white middle class Canadian folks and how all those brown people keep trying to take our country from us (which we kinda took from some other brown people - who are still here! Maybe they might be sympathetic to her concerns about foreigners coming in and ruining the place).

Instead, I reminded her that we have it pretty good here, and that I can't really fault someone for wanting to move here for a better life for their family (or whatever). She started going off about being "born and raised" here, as if that makes our tax dollars any better, and I told her that I was also born and raised here, but that I was raised to "share".

She wanted to debate, but I cut her off and said, finally, that I wasn't able to discuss immigration policies with her and she should have a good day. I feel like maybe I could have tried harder to get her to see my side of things, but it just really pissed me off. This lady goes around feeling like her entitlement is being taken away by people new to this country, and who knows what little microaggressions she might be inflicting on a daily basis. I'm not perfect, by any means, but I feel like this lady was incredibly rude to try to engage me in her prejudices, and I, as a good Canadian, cannot abide rudeness.