Sunday, December 17, 2006

Techno Haiku

Lightning vibrates air
Dance until you cannot breathe
Live a thunder life

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Voter Turnout? Cartograms

From an interesting article about the 2006 elections, I found a link to the last presidential election, normalized for population.

Here's a cartogram of the 2004 national presidential vote:

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Voter Turnout? Tuned Out?

Is voter turnout too low? Too high?

Can you have a too low or too high voter turnout?

Should people that vote be considered part of the constituency of elected politicians?

Is it accurate to say that the active members (voting members) of a community are the ones that set the agenda?

Are people that choose not to vote in essence voting for the status quo, and should be considered happy with the way things are going?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Review of "God Hates Gay Evangelicals"

Here's my review of "God Hates Gay Evangelicals" by Mark Morford.

Like most commentaries, the article is non-neutral in language. Setting that aside, there is a dangerous oversimplification in the initial assumption, and an easily disproven generalization later on in the article.

The assumption that Haggard is homosexual (as opposed to bisexual or a member of the entirely different category of being a straight man who has sex with men) might be an overstatement.

Haggard is not "obviously gay", unless being gay reduces down to genital sex. Someone that objectifies other men for sex for pay may or may not be gay. This is similar to the case of a gay man who has heterosexual sex on the side with hookers. Would we then call him straight? Or, is he just a gay man who has sex with purchased women while his partner is at work or on travel? It's safer and widely considered to be more anonmymous than having a fling with someone that might know your primary partner.

What about lesbians who have sex with men? They are considered lesbians, yet have sex with men for any number of reasons, some of them entirely pragmatic.

The reason why the distinction is important is because the gay community has fought for decades to stake the claim that same-sex attraction is NOT just about the sex. Gay sex used to be deprecated because it was simply about sexual attraction, and companionate love was NOT considered to be attainable by same-sex couples.

The writer states: "There really is nothing at all wrong with feeling deep, sexual love for another man."

No, there isn't anything wrong with it, but I don't get the impression that Haggard "loved" his boy toy in any way, deeply or otherwise.

Sex is not all there is to being homosexual. The article trivializes an entire sexual orientation down to covert genital activity by someone that has some serious self-hatred issues.

Another thing about this particular article is the sweeping statement that:

"You will not see a single comment from a Christian or would-be Christian that says: Hey, you know what? Maybe this gay love thing we've all been railing about and making laws against and rending our flesh over for so long, well, maybe it isn't such a bad thing after all."

Some research here - five minutes tops - would have relegated this to the "cut" column of "cut and paste", since (for example) all you have to do is go to the Dignity home page to get the pro-gay Catholic point of view. Dignity is regularly included in bishops' meetings. One is going on this coming weekend, and some of my fellow Dignity members are attending. They will be presenting their position on having a holistic sexuality that fully includes all orientations become part of church teachings. This is an ongoing dialogue that has already made a big difference. Progress is slow, but progress is made, and there are many pro-gay catholics. I think I qualify as one, and have made many public comments on the issues.

As far as other faiths, there are many books written by prominent (mostly christian) leaders that take positions on both sides. There are a lot of lectures from various leaders available in text or video form that are pro-gay and advocate exactly what the writer here says doesn't happen at all.

In fact, the writer doesn't limit himself to leaders that are already christian. The writer goes so far as to include all christians as well as all "would-be" christians, as if the writer knows what all "would-be" christians think.

Maybe the writer isn't familiar with the Unitarians?

I am not sure what to make of such a sweeping statement that is so egregiously wrong, other than to think the writer just doesn't know many christians.

What does the writer get right?

The description of self-hatred is right on the money. The self-hatred is a sign of internalized homophobia. It's not 100% sure bet, but I'd put good money on Haggard suffering from self-hatred that is orientation-related. It might not have homosexuality as its source (he could be bisexual, or he could be acting out some other repressed ugliness) but it probably does.

Otherwise, why take the risk of having sex with men for money? Maybe he felt trapped as a leader in the same way that my pastor friend in Arkansas talks about. Always being the one that leads, takes care of, listens to others, officiating at baptisms, weddings, funerals, visits to the sick...

It can be very stressful providing comfort to others, and you have to take care of yourself. In catholicism, priests are required to have a spiritual advisor - someone that they can go to where they are not "on the clock". It's imperfect, but it provides a way to take a break, get a clue, vent. My pastor friend doesn't have this, since he's alone as a leader in his (small) religion. All he has is me, and I'm 1643 miles away, and I have limited time. I suspect that Haggard was isolated, and ended up self-destructing as a result.


1) sexuality is more than sex acts
2) the sweeping generalization about "christians and would-be christians" fails
3) the article correctly and effectively describes self-hatred (probably internalized homophobia)

The article could actually be read as anti-gay if you are a strict gay-rights advocate. It misrepresents genital activity as healthy orientation, and presents a nonconsentual (wife didn't ok it), for-pay affair as a legitimate gay relationship. I'm not reading it that way, but I see people who are in the blogosphere. Since consentuality is very important to me, I think it's worth highlighting.

Monday, October 30, 2006

For my friend

The charge of child abuse is one that requires answer, regardless of the source, and regardless of the veracity of the charge. If someone defends themself vigorously against a charge, their defense should not be used against them as if that proves their guilt.

Richard Dawkins makes the charge that religious education of minors is tantamount to child abuse. There are people who seem to sort of agree with this charge. However, the equation of religious education of minors with child abuse is supported neither by tradition or by science.

Since Richard Dawkins is supposed to promote science (his day job, so to speak), it's important to highlight when he's on the wrong side of scientific research. Since religious practice - any practice - requires an introduction, an education, and exposure to some sort of community, a child raised in a religious tradition can more easily adopt whatever tradition he or she desires when he or she is an adult. This includes things like Ashtanga yoga, humanism, traditional mainline protestantism, catholicism, zen buddhism, paganism, and so on.

Since the value of religion in an individual's life can be categorically shown through scientific study, the failure to teach some sort of religion to a child is more abusive than teaching it.

Something that Richard Dawkins' reviewers point out, more competently than I could, are the places where he diverges from the evidence, and makes claims that simply can't be supported, or are contradicted by historical record.

When pushed for some evidence of the evil of religion, one often hears "crusades, 9/11, inquisition, galileo".

No one is claiming the crusades, or 9/11, or the spanish inquisition were entirely positive events. However, these events have powerful and complex historical contexts that cannot be simplified down to "thoroughly evil things that religion caused".

For a historical perspective on the crusades that states it better than I can:

In regards to 9/11, suicide bombings have a necessary condition which is secular, not religious. Religion is not a necessary factor in the incidence of suicide bombings. The stated goal of Al Quaeda is to evict western occupation and undue influence in the middle east. The targets of 9/11 were political (pentagon, white house) and economic (trade towers). If the point of the attacks was religious, then the national cathedral, the main jewish temple in DC, or Vatican City itself would have been the better set of targets.

These targets are easier to hit than the Pentagon or the White House, which have FAA zones that trigger a military response. (In the case of 9/11, this was botched, as NORAD was still set up for invading Soviet jet fighters.)

The choice of targets by Al Quaeda in Spain was deliberately picked to effect political change. The blasts right before the election swung the state to the socialists, and the withdrawal of Spanish Troops happened just as Al Quaeda desired. Al Quaeda planned this in advance, and documents to that effect have been recovered and are available on the web. Religion is not the fulcrum of contention with Spain. Separating the US from her allies in the military occupation of the Middle East most definitely is. After Spain is peeled away, then other targets would be hit (the London bombings, which did not immediately result in the UK pulling out). After the US is separated from enough allies, then targets in the US mainland would be hit again, until the US left the Middle East.

The portrayal of the 9/11 hijackers as "crazed" or "fanatical" people acting out of religious extremism is convenient for the Bush Administration, and many people buy into this for any number of reasons. However, the hijackers were not crazed lunatics. They acted smartly and strategically out of (primarily) political motives, with religion being used to recruit and retain them in the organization. Depictions of suicide bombers in the US often emphasize a religious motive, however the large majority of suicide bombings are carried out for secular reasons, most often by secular groups. The necessary condition for a suicide bomb is not religious, but is rather the occupation of a land by an outside entity with a superior military force. If this sounds familiar, then good - it should. This fits to a T our presence in the Middle East. We should not have been surprised by 9/11, nor should it be blamed on religion.

Our policies in the Middle East - and the fact that Israel is considered to be an occupier with the US as it's main and often only ally - set us up for attacks such as 9/11.

Here is some scholarship in this area from a place you visit:


Here's the view from some revolutionary socialist scholars.


From the third link, the summary:

"Suicide bombing as a tactic is used by various groups in diverse circumstances, but usually as a highly efficient means of combatting a perceived transgressor in nationalist terms. Religion and other ideological apparati do help facilitate self-murder and the murder of others, but as a motivational cause they seem to be inadequate on their own. Similarly, organisations provide cash and opportunity for carrying out such attacks, but not the desire. The variety of motivating factors seem to be overdetermined in the case of the London bombings by a rejection not of what the West is, but what it does. If the West's actions were just, this would simply be a stark Manichean case of good versus evil. Instead, what we appear to have is injustice generating recruits for unjust actions."

Would the absence of religion fix this?

From the 9/11 commission report:

"Many Americans have wondered,“Why do ‘they’ hate us?” Some also ask, "What can we do to stop these attacks?” Bin Ladin and al Qaeda have given answers to both these questions.To the first, they say that America had attacked Islam; America is responsible for all conflicts involving Muslims. Thus Americans are blamed when Israelis fight with Palestinians, when Russians fight with Chechens, when Indians fight with Kashmiri Muslims, and when the Philippine government fights ethnic Muslims in its southern islands. America is also held responsible for the governments of Muslim countries, derided by al Qaeda as “your agents.”

Bin Ladin has stated flatly,“Our fight against these governments is not separate from our fight against you.” These charges found a ready audience among millions of Arabs and Muslims angry at the United States because of issues ranging from Iraq to Palestine to America’s support for their countries’ repressive rulers. Bin Ladin’s grievance with the United States may have started in reaction to specific U.S. policies but it quickly became far deeper. To the second question, what America could do, al Qaeda’s answer was that America should abandon the Middle East, convert to Islam, and end the immorality and godlessness of its society and culture: “It is saddening to tell you that you are the worst civilization witnessed by the history of mankind.” If the United States did not comply, it would be at war with the Islamic nation, a nation that al Qaeda’s leaders said “desires death more than you desire life.”

1) Get out of the Middle East
2) Convert
3) Clean up your act

I think we can see what the foundational issue is here, and it's not the demand to convert. My feeling is that's thrown in to anger Americans, who don't like being told what to do, and therefore help Al Quaeda become the "arsonist rescuer" after America invades Iraq. By "arsonist rescuer" I mean the type of person that sets a fire to help quench it, and is therefore elected "town hero". This strategy is working pretty well so far, with US forces in Iraq regularly described as infidels, invaders, occupiers, and the source of Iraqi misery.

The historical context is of course of great value here. From the 9/11 commission report:

"After gaining independence from Western powers following World War II, the Arab Middle East followed an arc from initial pride and optimism to today’s mix of indifference, cynicism, and despair. In several countries, a dynastic state already existed or was quickly established under a paramount tribal family.

Monarchies in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Jordan still survive today. Those in Egypt, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen were eventually overthrown by secular nationalist revolutionaries. The secular regimes promised a glowing future, often tied to sweeping ideologies (such as those promoted by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Arab Socialism or the Ba’ath Party of Syria and Iraq) that called for a single, secular Arab state. However, what emerged were almost invariably autocratic regimes that were usually unwilling to tolerate any opposition—even in countries, such as Egypt, that had a parliamentary tradition. Over time, their policies—repression, rewards, emigration, and the displacement of popular anger onto scapegoats (generally foreign)—were shaped by the desire to cling to power.

The bankruptcy of secular, autocratic nationalism was evident across the Muslim world by the late 1970s. At the same time, these regimes had closed off nearly all paths for peaceful opposition, forcing their critics to choose silence, exile, or violent opposition. Iran’s 1979 revolution swept a Shia theocracy into power. Its success encouraged Sunni fundamentalists elsewhere. In the 1980s, awash in sudden oil wealth, Saudi Arabia competed with Shia Iran to promote its Sunni fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, Wahhabism. The Saudi government,always conscious of its duties as the custodian of Islam’s holiest places, joined with wealthy Arabs from the Kingdom and other states bordering the Persian Gulf in donating money to build mosques and religious schools that could preach and teach their interpretation of Islamic doctrine. In this competition for legitimacy, secular regimes had no alternative to offer. Instead, in a number of cases their rulers sought to buy off local Islamist movements by ceding control of many social and educational issues. Emboldened rather than satisfied, the Islamists continued to push for power—a trend especially clear in Egypt. Confronted with a violent Islamist movement that killed President Anwar Sadat in 1981, the Egyptian government combined harsh repression of Islamic militants with harassment of moderate Islamic scholars and authors, driving many into exile. In Pakistan, a military regime sought to justify its seizure of power by a pious public stance and an embrace of unprecedented Islamist influence on education and society. These experiments in political Islam faltered during the 1990s: the Iranian revolution lost momentum, prestige, and public support, and Pakistan’s rulers found that most of its population had little enthusiasm for fundamentalist Islam. Islamist revival movements gained followers across the Muslim world, but failed to secure political power except in Iran and Sudan. In Algeria, where in 1991 Islamists seemed almost certain to win power through the ballot box, the military preempted their victory, triggering a brutal civil war that continues today. Opponents of today’s rulers have few, if any, ways to participate in the existing political system.They are thus a ready audience for calls to Muslims to purify their society, reject unwelcome modernization, and adhere strictly to the Sharia."

Since secular government corruption is named as the source of the Islamist angst in this as well as other studies, wouldn't it be at least as logical to assign the same amount of blame to secularism as to religion, when assigning blame for 9/11?

Galileo is a very interesting case. The simplistic story of "the church repressed science!" is inaccurate.

To me, it boils down to two friends in a pissing contest, where one had more power and could threaten the other. Both men (Galileo and his former strong supporter, the pope) had huge egos, and both blew their chances to work things out and advance science.

The use of the inquisition here is of course deplorable.

In fact, it's as deplorable to the daily use in California (as well as all the other states) of threats of anal rape in jail when interrogating male suspects under arrest, in order to "gain cooperation". How is showing someone a rack, and implying that it will used, any different than the completely tolerated tactic of threatening men (and women) with the horrible things that "might happen to them" in jail? The brutality of a secular jail situation is no different from the brutality of the inquisition.

One of the interesting facts about the inquisition is that the most famous, the Spanish Inquisition, was operated under secular authority.

The most important question in context of the assertion that everyone would be better off without religion is simple. In the absense of religion, are nation-states at peace? The answer, as far as it can be seen since you can't run an experiment where you delete religion from society and repeat human evolution, is either no or uknowable.

The absence of religion - the banishment, or repression, or replacement of it, does not prevent atrocity, warfare, or the failure of states. In fact, the absence of religion seems to create fertile ground for a lot of all three.

In the absense of religion, are individual people happier? The answer is no. With repeatable scientific evidence pointing to a strong positive correlation between individual health, happiness as measured on standard psych eval tests, increased lifespan, and increased marriage longevity, the benefits cloud the issue of the claim of religion as a net negative.

Since religions produce people that volunteer more, donate more money, and support secular causes to a degree significantly higher than secular people do, the absence of religion would probably result in fewer service organizations, and less good done in the world.

Religion thrives under and deserves critique, but as a product of human evolution, it's not inherentely evil, nor are we better off without it.

Assigning value to a product of evolution smacks of teleological thinking - sort of like assigning a value to white vs. black in the case of the Peppered Moth. If I did that, I'd be laughed right out of the lab, so to speak.

By the way,

I don't like it when stick figures of religion are hatefully portrayed by people that don't address historical context, or verifiable facts.

I expect that anyone would defend any of their beliefs, at any time they feel they are either mischaracterized, attacked, or subverted. This is true of politics, religion, and sex especially.

Which leads me back to the original point. Accusations of child abuse are serious, not funny, and have to be defended. If you told a Wiccan that you honestly believed her practice of Wicca, and her intent to teach her children about it, was tantamount to child abuse, I can imagine that she would not be amused in the slightest.

The tactic of:

Ann: "You're a poo-poo head!"
Bob: "No I'm not."
Ann: "Only a poo-poo head would disagree, so you are obviously a poo-poo head."

actually has a name in debate theory, although, I can't remember what it is. If it doesn't seem familiar, here's another more pertinant version:

Richard: "Religion is off limit for debate. Religion is so terrible, that we'd be better off without it. Idiots, child-abusers, etc."
Charlie: "I'm not a child abuser, and religion has positive social value. Here, let me show you."
Richard: "See? Your reaction means I'm right. Religion is evil!"

The only acceptable outcome to Richard is for religious people to roll over, repent, and become positivists. Repent or die, anyone? The acceptable outcome for Charlie is to be portrayed fairly, which includes warts and failures, but doesn't totalize religion as evil. The second one is more reasonable, and more healthy, no? The first one is quite judgemental, and flies in the face of human evolution, scientific evidence, and the historical record.

Finally, the evidence quandary. "Show me evidence for God!"

I'm not an adherent of fluffy white cloud theology, so I can't really defend it. I've said before, I can't speak to issues of faith the way other people might. I can give my take on it, which only seems to invite ridicule, so I generally don't offer it.

My god is the god of Epicurus, Occam, Descartes, and Einstein. She is not the white-haired guy on the roof of the sistine chapel. I posit a perfect being, and model my life accordingly. Why do I need to provide evidence for belief in an ideal being? This is a 2500 year old question that was solved by the Greeks. Epicurus, my hero, both posed and solved the "problem of evil" and provided a solid framework for me. With additions from Sartre, and some enlargements from physics, biology, and chemistry, I'm at ease being "a believer", despite being a "loose canon". Get it? Canon? Cannon?

I can't add any more to their writings (Epicurus, Occam, Descarte, Sarte, Einstein). Any further explanation that I could offer would only dilute theirs. I might be a decent writer, but they are masterful.

I develop values through a religiously-based intellectual activity, and have come up with six. I decide how to spend my time, and what actions to take, based on this chain of reasoning that is initiated and nurtured by consistent meditation upon my idea of god in the form of prayer and good works. Since I take Matthew chapter six seriously,

I don't discuss the "good works" that I do. Nor do I reveal the good works of others that I personally witness. I keep my mouth shut not because I think it will help with some sort of afterlife, since I don't believe in one, but because bragging about it ruins it for me. Since I see others following this philosophy, and since I can do math, it would take a colossal amount of evil - far more than exists in the historical record - to counterbalance the good done in the name of religion.

Until E.O. Wilson's vision of a replacement for religion happens, then I am a religious person (happily catholic, with six or seven other traditions seriously investigated), and I refuse to be unfairly characterized by Richard Dawkins.

If you think I throw a fit over religion, try accusing me of not "really" being bisexual, or bisexuality being "a myth". I save my best screeds for sex.

Ham Radio CQWW Contest

This past weekend was the CQ DX Contest.

The objective of an amateur radio contest is for amateurs around the
world to contact other amateurs in as many zones and countries as possible. A zone is like a really big version of a zip code. It can be part of a country, or an area of several countries. It's part of the on-air exchange, and simply makes the contest a bit easier to work.

In the nomenclature of ham radio, you "work a contest", even though it's just for fun. The advantages of working contests are improvement of your communication skills as well as testing the quality of your equipment. If your station works well in a contest, it will probably work well in an emergency.

It's also a great chance to see exactly what your antenna coverage is like - whether or not you have a good antenna pattern, which directly affects how well you are received worldwide.

All bands, 1.8 through 28 MHz, are used for this particular contest.

I worked the contest only briefly throughout the weekend, but I logged stations in Hawaii, Canada, Japan, and South America during the times I was on the air. The experience of participating in a contest is completely worth the time and effort. You don't have to have your own station to participate, but you do need to be a licensed amateur radio operator. This is a very easy license to get.

I operated on the 20 meter band (14MHz). Tuning up and down the band I heard a ton of stations calling for contacts. The cadence and rhythm of the voices makes your heart quicken. It's like standing on the floor of the stock exchange, listening for someone to make or take a bid. When a rare station comes on the air and calls for contacts (calls "CQ") then many people answer. This is called a pile-up, because the voices pile up on top of each other. Again, this is similar to a hot stock being offered at a great price by a floor agent at an exchange. Everyone starts yellling.

The ability to pick out calls from the din, to process them quickly, and then move on to the next person, is something developed over time. It takes listening skills, cognitive skills, and stamina. The contest is long. It starts at 0000 hours GMT Saturday and ends 2400 hours GMT Sunday. So, all day Saturday and all day Sunday. This is 48 hours of operating, I reckon. I don't really know if there is a required break, like in some contests. I have to admit to not reading the rules beforehand.

When you contact another station in a contest, the point is to get an "exchange." This is a bit of information that may be your state, or your section, or zone, or grid square locator, or something like that. Some contests have silly/fun exchanges, and some have more serious, detailed exchanges. It varies quite a bit from contest to contest, but all contests require the correct exchange of some sort of information.

For the CQWW contest, you have to get the call sign of the person you're talking to correct, and you have to get their CQ zone. This is submitted to the contest sponsor in the form of a log. Each contact is worth some amount of points. There are ways to increase your score, called "multipliers", that vary from contest to contest. For example, if you contact every zone, or every state, or every province of a country, then you get a boost. This can make a big difference if you are competitive in the contests. There are strategies and tactics to contesting. It's considered a sport, and to be really good at it requires dedication and practice. However, it doesn't take much to turn a neophyte entry-level ham radio operator into a full-fledged participant.

One of the best ways to get involved is to participate in a multi-operator station. This is where several people man a station in shifts, or together, and make contacts. The more experienced people teach you the ropes and give advice, and you don't have to buy a bunch of equipment or put up a big antenna.

I didn't "call CQ" during the contest - which means finding and defending a frequency, where you transmit something like "CQ Contest CQ Contest Whiskey Five November Yankee Victor" over and over again, until people respond, whereupon you do your exchange. I used the "search and pounce" tactic, which means dialing around and answering people doing the hard work. Sleep in, still win.

In order to win, you really have to do both. And, you have to know when the various bands are open - not all frequencies are usable at all times - and you have to know when to take a break so you aren't drooling on your microphone at 3:12 am.

Here's a typical exchange for me:

They: "CQ contest CQ contest 4M5R"
Me: "W5NYV"
They: "W5NYV 59 33"
Me: "Roger, 59 03"
They: "QSL, QRZ?"

CQ means calling all stations.
QSL means "confirm contact"
QRZ means "who (else) is calling me?"

Sometimes you have to go back and forth to confirm an exchange, because there may be a lot of static or you may be a weak station. Then it goes something like this:

They: "CQ contest CQ contest 4M5R"
Me: "W5NYV"
They: "Whiskey Five, again?"
Me: "Whiskey Five November Yankee Victor"
They: "Whiskey Five November Yankee Delta?"
Me: "Whiskey Five November Yankee Victor"
They: "W5NYV 59 33"
Me: "Roger, 59 03"
They: "13?"
Me: "03, 03, 03"
They: "QSL, QRZ?"

The exchange is quick. When there is a pileup, or when band conditions are good, you make contacts as quick as you can talk or as quick as you can log. Making a contact is one thing, but successfully logging it is another.

There are a ton of software tools that help with contests. Actually talking into a microphone for hours and hours will kill your voice. It's acceptable to record the parts that you are going to say over and over again, and transmit those with a keypress of the software interfaced to your radio.

Logging programs help by allowing you to type things in. If you are a multi-operator station, a second person can be assigned the logging duties.

For the contest, I used pencil and paper to log, and a push-to-talk microphone. Since I didn't work very long at any one time, it worked out fine.

One of the things that I thought about over the weekend, while working the contest, was how much Amy would have liked watching this whole process. She wasn't really interested in ham radio, but she was interested in ham radio operators, and I know she would have been really impressed with the whole effort, and how much focus and concentration it took.

I remember when I let her hold my violin. She never really played any musical instruments, but she played a bard on EQ. One of the characters that she fictionalized played the violin, and I thought it might be fun for her to see how incredibly lightweight a violin is, and what it looks like in your hands. She was really taken with how fragile it seemed - something that could make such a sound should be heavy, like an electric guitar. Violins almost feel like they're made from balsa wood. I had her draw the bow to see what it felt like, and she laughed when it made the most horrible sound ever in the history of strings.

I think she would have been equally engaged at the antics of the contest. She would have loved eavesdropping on the "big gun" stations as they chewed through their pile-ups like communications juggernauts - spitting out the syllables in staccato.

Contests, like any competition, can be addictive. For some people, it's their main interest in ham radio. I'm just a dilletante. I will probably never rank very high in the standings, but the sheer fun of working people from around the world in a competitive atmosphere is totally worth the time. Hearing your callsign from a faraway station is such a thrill. I'm looking forward to the next contest, in November.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Heavy Axe (poem)

Doesn't that axe get heavy?
The one you keep grinding every day?
The one that hangs upon you,
Draining your strength away?

To support it you must purchase
Stones aplenty, oh so many stones.
And don't forget the extra axeheads,
To replace the shattered ones.

You grasp it as a corpse would
A deathgrip upon the shaft
While all around you unencumbered
People blithely pass.

They see you fall behind them,
Lugging that burdensome thing.
Your hot hatefulness consumes
To ashes any chance of reasoning.

The Mariner killed the Albatross.
You took up the axe.
Coleridge teaches hope here.
But you have to choose to act.

Rigid inflexible thinking,
Hidebound by your generation,
Never letting opportunity escape
To clumsily hack and rend.

What at first engendered alarm,
Anxiety, and strife,
Quickly faded to pity,
For the paucity within your life.

The paths gleam before your blindness.
Those resplendant glittering roads
With innumerable people upon them,
A living river of the soul.

Loose your grip, the scales will fall;
The heart relents her vanity.
Loose your grip, the axe will drop;
Welcome back to your humanity.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Michael as Flower at Zoo

Michael on a field trip to the San Diego Zoo. I took this photo at the Children's section of the zoo.
Originally uploaded by Abraxas3d.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Good Idea from George W. Bush

President Bush says he wants to raise fuel-efficiency standards on automobiles, as members of both parties jockeyed for political position on the issue of rising gas prices. "I encourage them to give me that authority," Bush told reporters during a visit to a service station in Biloxi, Mississippi. "It's an authority I used for light trucks, and I intend to use it wisely if Congress will give me that authority."

Increasing the fuel economy of light duty vehicles is the single most effective energy-saving policy the federal government could adopt.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Energy - Solar

BLOG Energy - Solar

Solar power is one of the "alternative" energy sources that someone living in a sunny place like San Diego can make the most headway with. (I put it in quotes because to me, it's just an energy source. There's nothing scurrilously or dangerously or seductively alternative about it at all.)

Here are some construction photos, and a shot from the street.




The solar panels on my house cover most of the southern-facing roofline. You can't really see them from the street unless you stand at a particular angle on your tiptoes. You can see a brief flash of them as you drive by. The neighbors don't really have much of a view of the panels, either, just due to the layout of the nearby houses. The first photo was taken during the worst of the smoke of the October 2003 San Diego County fires. That's why it's orange.

The angle of the roofline almost exactly approximates the ideal angle for catching the most perpendicular of the sun's rays. This was a conscious part of the house-buying process and not a happy accident. Relatively few homes in this particular neighborhood have as good a roofline for solar, but I drive by hundreds and hundreds of homes and businesses every time I'm out that have "wasted" space perfectly aligned to the sun. What a great sight it would be if there were solar panels on rooftops as a matter of course, and not as a rare exception.

The system here is of a "grid-tie" type. That means it's tied to the power grid, as opposed to being "stand alone". Grid-tie means that when we're using less than we generate, the electricity is fed back into the power grid for others to use. It also means that when the electrical grid goes down, so do we. There is a large safety switch that disconnects the solar panels from the system in order to prevent backfeeding.

With the addition of a bank of batteries or a generator to "fake" the grid, then we could convert to stand-alone. However, the reason I didn't choose this option when specifying the system is three-fold.

First, battery banks take up a lot of space and are a cost-adder. Since the power in this neighborhood is extremely reliable, there is little need to incur the space and monetary cost for producing our own night-time power every night. In the case of an emergency (72 hours of no power) then we'd be no better off than anyone else. However, if the power is off for more than three days, the odds of us staying here in Carmel Valley, as opposed to evacuating someplace else, are actually pretty low.

The second reason is that a portable generator is more useful to me than a bank of batteries. The generator can enable stand-alone operation, with the addition of a transfer safety switch behind the generator. The generator power would then be applied at the point where the grid would be if it wasn't down (I haven't tested the whole idea quite yet, so don't go off and do anything drastic without convincing yourself you won't do something epicly dumb first) and can also be taken places (like Field Day) and pressed into service.

The third reason was some concern over maintaining a large bank of batteries for the lifetime of the system. The solar panels have an expected useful lifetime of about 30 years. Some people explain that this is conservative - that many panels in current production may end up with even longer lifetimes. Some of the first solar systems installed in residential places are already over 35 years in use and are still humming along. In stand-alone systems, Batteries are the components with the shortest life expectancy. Most of the companies I talked with said 15 years would be the maximum, but the residential systems I've surveyed required battery bank replacement in 10 years or less.

We did have a failure with one of the two inverters, but it was a quick warrenty replacement. The inverters are under warrenty for 5 years, and are from Sunny Boy. They're old-school big-iron boring old inverters. Batteries (optional), wiring, solar panels, inverters, safety switches comprise the components of a solar system (or photovoltaic system "PV" system for short). There are no moving parts. Electrically, it's quite simple.

The system here at the house was designed for something less than 100 percent of our electric bill. This is commonly done because you're not going to get easily compensated for trying to become a power generation station by the power company, and because of diminishing returns in tiered-power situations. This means that a small system can have more ROI due to the fact that you're knocking your bill down from perhaps a high-cost high-tier power consumption range to a lower-tier lower-cost power consumption range. Getting the power consumption range down to the bottom of the lowest basic tier (e.g. SDG&E basic allotment of the first 300 or so killowatt-hours is only $20 bucks or so) means you're spending a lot on hardware that doesn't really buy you much in terms of financial savings.

Some people design their systems this way, and have relatively small "assist" systems that are very finanically effective, especially if they have high energy consumption due to air conditioning, etc.

I went for a larger system in order to "do environmental good" as well as reduce the electrical bill. The target was 85% of the average consumption over the previous 16 months, as of summer 2003.

The system will pay for itself at a later date due to the higher initial cost, but it sure is nice to get an energy bill of "zero" for 6 months out of the year.

Energy production is lowest in January. Considering that the winter solstice is in late December, it's interesting to see that January, then February, then December are the months where the panels are least effective, at least in terms of energy consumed from the point of view of the power company. This oddity makes sense in light of the fact that grid-tie systems are usually billed by net power.

In other words, in the months where I produce more than I consume, the net "owed" to me is shoved forward to the next month. I get a headstart. This has shifted the entire graph of yearly energy consumption forward a bit. For example, September was a zero consumption month, but March was not. If March and September are both equinox months, then they should have similar energy patterns by the end of the month. But, due to net metering, and the fact that the billing month doesn't exactly line up with the equinox crossover, I guess they don't.

If I was less lazy, I'd take it as an action item to verify this. However, I didn't spring for the expensive frivolous wireless poor-industrial-design data logger (yeah ok I'm a codger), and I don't manually write down how much exactly I generate every month (something the equipment dutififully reports).

I guess I've talked myself into starting to monitor it. Or, I could build my own data logger! Yes, yes, I need another project to do.

That's my experience with solar grid-tie systems.

The state of California, at the time of installation and at the present time, gives tax incentives and subsidies on each kilowatt-hour that your system is rated at. These incentives are not widely publicized. Grid tie systems are offered as an option by at least one developer, but the promotion is somewhat muted, and "energy star appliances" are given higher billing than the solar systems and solar water heating systems that also come with the package.

MY feeling is that once again consumerism has lead to form (appearance) being valued way more than function (clean energy). Solar panels and the equipment necessary to have either a grid-tie or stand-alone system do NOT have to be ugly or obtrusive. There is a false dichotomy at work here that people have totally bought into. Somehow, solar panels are dorky, or ugly. How many times do you actually ponder the south-facing roofline of your house? Do you live on the south-facing roof of your house? Since most installations can in many cases be installed unobtrusively with a bit of intelligent exterior design, and since there are solar panels that look like roof tiles or roof material on the market now, any snobbishness about looks resolves into irrationality.

Yes, the systems add cost to a house. Yes, they can and do pay for themselves directly. They pay for themselves indirectly too, by reducing the need for energy generation at polluting stations, therefore reducing the costs to society of energy production. We don't have a whole lot of natural gas left, either. So the more people that employ solar systems now, the longer the supply will last.

Even the cleanest natural gas burning power generation station still produces pollution that will not be produced by the solar panels. Yes, there is pollution produced in manufacturing solar panels, but that is greatly outweighed by the clean solar power produced by the panels over the course of their lifetime. For each panel, it takes (at the current time) from 2 to 5 years for the electricity produced by the panel to equal the energy that was necessary to produce it. Some people count this energy in their evaluations, and some do not.

There are justifications either way, depending on whether you do a straight household ROI (since everything used in a household is manufactured, and the energy costs of manufacturing are assumed to be in the price to the consumer, adding additional costs is double-billing the item) or you actually want to know whether or not you are making a positive environmental effect (which, in the case of grid tie solar systems, you undoubtedly are, especially after the first few years where the energy required to make the items is paid back by the items themselves. Can you say this about most any other manufactured good?)

Solar systems aren't useful only in the southwest, even though they're most useful here. A photovoltaic system can go in almost anywhere that the sun shines. You may get better performance in a sunny place, and that's where the most activity seems to be, but I've seen systems profiled in places like Connecticut and New York and the UK on television programs, and they seem to work just fine.

The efficiency goes down with clouding, dust on the panels, and lower angle of the sun, but even with these challenges, solar co-generation stations on commercial and residential buildings are a great energy solution. Unlike hydrogen fuel cells, these systems are simple, available now, and easily understood by almost anyone. If you can operate an oven in your kitchen, you are overqualified for operating a solar system on your roof.

Speaking of kitchen ovens, mine is broken yet again.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Socialism, Capitalism - economic truth, ecologic truth

From an article from

There's a quote by Oystein Dahle close to a decade ago now, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was for many years Exxon's vice president for Norway and the North Sea. He said, "Socialism collapsed because it did not allow the market to tell the economic truth. Capitalism may collapse because it does not allow the market to tell the ecological truth." That's a lot of wisdom distilled into those two sentences.

Equating the blind spots of socialism and capitalism is something I found to be quite interesting.

In the presence of a shared ethical framework which values the environment we depend on, then capitalism can potentially work well in the long term.  There is of course the other unsolved issue of what "enough" wealth is in terms of creating it. This is a conundrum that has existed from the beginning of capitalism ( as defined in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations).

This shared ethical framework with respect to the environment does not currently exist in the United States capitalist community for any number of reasons. American capitalism has been allowed to simply pillage the environment instead of preserving it, with some regulations having some effect from time to time.

This unrestricted wealth creation at high cost to both workers and the environment has been going on for a long time. It's gone on so long that being a good consumer is now the equivalent of being a good citizen, with predictable results to culture, the environment, and - oddly enough - the economy itself.

A professor at UALR told me that the Roman Empire collapsed for several interrelated reasons. One of which was the habit of farmers to grow cash crops instead of sustainable mixes. The cash crops were exported for, of course, cash. Cash allowed the Romans to buy whatever they wanted. The economic system was advanced and worked pretty well.

When unrest due to some sustained external raiding made it impossible for the cash crops to be exported, then the internal economy of the Roman Empire started to experience hyperinflation and moved from healthy to crumbling in a relatively short time.

The economy can indeed be killed by that which makes it strong, if enough positive feedback is applied. But enough of ancient history. We're seeing history in the making at the present time.

The destabilization of the world oil economy (or, as I would rather see it put, the recognition that it is inherently unstable to begin with) may have some parallels with the Roman experience. Inflation is kept low here due to the fact that we've shifted labor costs to places where labor is shockingly cheap, while at the same time selling debt.

By giving up the ability to manufacture consumer goods, while continuing to borrow money from the same economies that sell us those manufactured goods, we either have a mutually-assured-destruction Economic Death Embrace (and the US and, say, China continue on as we have been continuing on), or we'll have a situation where the dollar will devalue greatly, and we will suffer widespread economic damage as the dollar slowly (or quickly) becomes incapable of buying what we, or our parents, used to buy.

Since mutually-assured-destruction didn't prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union. I'm not inclined to think of it as a stable or preferable economic partnership. Destabilization of the trade routes made the Roman experience of the third century quite challenging. Continued destabilization of our trade routes could make our own third century, of existence as a country, quite challenging.

So, if someone like me can maintain an understanding of the basics, you'd figure that our government, with all sorts of smart people as resources, would come up with solid solutions for the precarious position that we find ourselves uncomfortably sliding towards. After all, with a republican president and a republican congress, I'd expect to see some smart economic action - some wicked-mean sharp-shooting monetary policy acumen. After all, these are the guys that are supposed to be the experts of the financial side of the house.

It's unfortunately revealing, then, that it took only a modest rise in gasoline prices for President Bush to do nothing more than simply waive environmental rules for gasoline.

This is supposedly to help lower prices. I'm not exactly sure how this will help lower prices. Why are we trying to manipulate prices (thinking as a Republican), instead of solving the underlying problems anyway?

A free market means a free market. Prices are high for specific reasons, none of which can be solved by rolling back environmental laws. A real republican answer would be to allow the market to shape society, not use the machinery of government to shape the market, while allowing society to do whatever it is that it's doing. This primarily means driving a lot more than necessary and buying record amounts of fuel.

It sounds, from the brief article, that refineries are generally already done with their summer blending plans anyway. The connection between not complying with regulations and a reduction in price to the consumer is therefore negligible at best. I of course fully expect to see someone at some point claim that the Bush Administration "saved summer vacations for patriotic Americans" by rolling back environmental laws.

Any cost decreases will be largely taken as profits by the refineries. A cynic would see this (profits for oil companies) as the real reason for waiving of a regulatory law that has far less impact on the value (as opposed to price) of gasoline than drivers actually driving intelligently or maintaining correct air pressure in their car tires. If you want to tinker with regulations, then require higher gas mileages for new cars. It's not like the technology isn't there, and would actually increase fuel value to the consumer.

There is a long list of other things that could actually help consumer costs. Some of which have been repeatedly and publicly suggested by people a lot smarter than me. I can't recall anyone outside of maybe a few refinery industry lobbyists that has ever called for the removal of clean air related environmental regulations. There has never been any sort of suggestion that it would actually lower prices at the pump.

The reason for this is simple. Dirty air and climate change cost society much much more than any small break at the pump from refining regulations going away.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Freedom Quote, Rise of Soft Paternalism, Libertarian Response?

Unless men are free to be vicious they cannot be virtuous.
by Frank Meyer, "In Defense of Freedom: A Conservative Manifesto"

Much has been made of freedom and liberty in this country. It's a neverending source of inspiration to both real and imaginary politics.

The struggle over privacy, freedom, choice, and liberty is the most important political question we face. It's more important than the War on Whatever, more important than the level of taxation, more important than the state of the electoral college or immigration reform. The only thing it's not more important than is the survival of the environment. I.e., the health of the planet itself, without which everyone slowly dies, which is, perhaps, the ultimate in privacy, since the government can no longer badger, guide, legislate to, or tax you.

In reading the cover story from the April 6th Economist magazine, you can see this questions of privacy, freedom, choice, and liberty in action.

The Rise of Soft Paternalism

April 6th, Economist

Liberals sometimes dream of a night-watchman state, securing property and person, but no more. They fret that societies have instead submitted to the nanny state, a protective but intrusive matriarch, coddling citizens for their own good. Economists, with their strong faith in rationality and liberty, have tended to agree. As many decisions as possible should be left in the individual's lap, because no one knows your interests better than you do. Most of us have gained from this freedom.

But a new breed of policy wonk is having second thoughts. On some of the biggest decisions in their lives, people succumb to inertia, ignorance or irresolution. Their private failings—obesity, smoking, boozing, profligacy—are now big political questions. And the wonks think they have an ingenious new answer—a guiding but not illiberal state.What they propose is “soft paternalism”.

Thanks to years of patient observation of people's behaviour, they have come to understand your weaknesses and blindspots better than you might know them yourself. Now they hope to turn them to your advantage. They are paternalists, because they want to help you make the choices you would make for yourself—if only you had the strength of will and the sharpness of mind. But unlike “hard” paternalists, who ban some things and mandate others, the softer kind aim only to skew your decisions, without infringing greatly on your freedom of choice. Technocrats, itching to perfect society, find it irresistible. What should the supposed beneficiaries think?

Most people would accept that a healthy diet is hard to achieve, financial matters are confusing and cigarettes kill too many. The state is tempted to step in, not only because of the harm that smokers, lushes, spendthrifts and gluttons may do to others, but because of the harm they are doing to themselves. In Scotland last month the government banned smoking in offices, restaurants and pubs. In Massachusetts, the state legislature has passed a bill requiring everyone who can afford to buy health insurance to do so, on pain of higher taxes.

This is hard paternalism. The softer sort is about nudging people to do things that are in their best interests. The purest form involves setting up systems for sinners to reform themselves: in Missouri for instance, some 10,000 compulsive gamblers have banned themselves from riverboat casinos; if they succumb to their habit (and are caught) they face tough punishments. In most cases, though, soft paternalism means the government giving people a choice, but skewing the choice towards the one their better selves would like to make.

For instance, in many countries plenty of workers fail to enrol in pension schemes and suffer as a result. The reason is not that they have decided against joining, but that they haven't decided at all—and enrolling is cumbersome. So why not make enrolling in the scheme the default option, still leaving them the choice to opt out? Studies have shown this can nearly double the enrolment rate. Lord Turner, head of Britain's Pensions Commission, is the latest soft paternalist to recommend such a scheme

Soft paternalists also want to give people more room to rethink “hot and hasty” decisions. They favour cooling-off periods before big decisions, such as marriage, divorce or even buying cigarettes. Some of them toy with elaborate “sin licences”, which would entitle the holder to buy cigarettes, alcohol or even perhaps fatty foods, but only at times and in amounts the licenceholder himself signed up to in advance.

If people want this kind of customised paternalism, why can't the market, in the shape of rehab clinics and personal trainers, provide it? Soft paternalists argue that, without the power of the state behind such schemes, they will often break down: the sovereign consumer can always veto his own decisions. He can fire his personal trainer or check out of the clinic. Long before the government took it upon itself to ban opium from general sale, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a Romantic poet and drug addict, used to hire porters to bar his entry to apothecaries. But he would later threaten to have them arrested if they did not let him pass.

Soft paternalism has much in its favour. First, it is certainly better than hard paternalism. Second, a government has to provide information to citizens in order for them to make rational decisions on everything from smoking to breastfeeding to organ donation. Even a government reluctant to second-guess its citizens ends up advising them in one way or another. What people decide they want is often a product of the way a choice is framed for them—they take the first thing on the menu, or a bit of everything. Even a truly liberal government would find itself shaping the wishes and choices to which it earnestly wants to defer. It's surely better to lure people into pension schemes than out of them.

Yet from the point of view of liberty, there is a serious danger of overreach, and therefore grounds for caution. Politicians, after all, are hardly strangers to the art of framing the public's choices and rigging its decisions for partisan ends. And what is to stop lobbyists, axe-grinders and busybodies of all kinds hijacking the whole effort? There is, admittedly, a safety valve. People remain free to reject the choices soft paternalism tries to guide them into—that is what is distinctive about it. But though people will still have this freedom, most won't bother to use it—that is what makes soft paternalism work. For all its potential, and its advantage over paternalism of the hard sort, this is a tool that transfers power from the individual to the state, which only sometimes knows best.

Its champions will say that soft paternalism should only be used for ends that are unarguably good: on the side of sobriety, prudence and restraint. But private virtues such as these are as likely to wither as to flourish when public bodies take charge of them. And life would be duller if every reckless spirit could outsource self-discipline to the state. Had the government deprived Coleridge of opium, he might have been happier. Then again, there might have been no “Kubla Khan”.

So, the challenge to Americans, many of which believe that the government has "no business telling us how to live", is what to do about the rise of soft paternalism.

If defaults are changed to where you have to opt out, instead of opting in, then many things would indeed go much better. Retirement savings, for example, which is something Americans seem to have some problems with, would probably be the first thing that many people would choose to make opt out instead of opt in.

Waiting periods can affect sales and decisions. If things like divorce, gun-purchases, medical procedures, cigarette purchases, and whatever other vice the government and/or society wants to see reduced had waiting periods, then this too would most likely be widely tolerated. We already tolerate the legislation of waiting periods for many things in the US. Why not more?

At first, this seems to fly in the face of libertarianism, which stresses that allowing people to make their own choices, even if they are bad ones, is better than someone else making the choice for you, even if that someone else is making a very good choice for you.

However, Libertarianism works well only when everyone chooses within a framework of responsible freedom. Libertarianism works exceedingly well for responsible people who tend to be altruistic, well-educated, and believe - either consciously or unconsciously - in a moral or ethical framework behind and beneath law and choice.

This is why I both vote libertarian, am proud to be libertarian, and yet also concede how improbable it is for more than perhaps a small fraction of the population to ever be truly able to embrace what is, at heart, a very disciplined and responsible form of government. Like any ideal, the reflection in reality is somewhat fractured, faceted, or corrupted. The (alleged) fiscal conservatism of the Republicans, the dedication to doing the right thing by the environment of the Greens, the compassion for equality of the Democrats - all these things are facets of Libertarianism, scattered amongst parties that have other fatal flaws that render them incapable of winning a libertarian vote. Bringing all these ideas together under the banner of one party happened in 1972, but no one seemed to notice.

Libertarianism is abused and society is disserved by people who make selfish short-sighted choices, who then are left to die in a ditch due to accident or addiction or other repercussions of their choices.

The Democrat would try to save the person in the ditch. A Republican would punish them. A Green might secretly rejoice in the darwinian reduction of population that irresponsible behaviour produces from time to time. It takes courage to confront the underlying reasons for irresponsibility before individual choices lead to social loss.

In a morally relativistic society, how often do you actually hear someone making a value judgement about the choices of another person? It's quite rare.

It also takes courage to let the person continue to make those choices and allow them to suffer the consequences. This is never fun when the consequences are negative.

So, the question is:

Is soft paternalism a preservation of the ideals of Libertarianism, or is it a perversion of those ideals?

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Energy - Hydrogen

Hydrogen cars cannot replace the current transportation demands that gasoline-powered cars provide. The energy density just isn't there. Even if the storage, transportation, energy return on energy invested, and tank size problems can be solved, then ranges and required energies to create the hydrogen result in a greatly reduced energy capacity.

To create hydrogen from methane, use the following recipe.

CH4 (g) + H2O + e > 3H2(g) + CO(g)

Greenhouse gases are still created. The energy used to make the steam (the H2O) is usually produced by burning fossil fuels. Essentially, the pollution has been moved around a bit. Using nuclear power to heat the steam might work, but more plants would need to be built or else diverted from electricity production.

To create hydrogen from water, use the following recipe.

2H2O + e = 2H2(g) + O2(g)

This requires 286kJ per mole. This energy is required by the chemistry of reaction and can never be reduced.

It can be somewhat difficult to get a real picture of hydrogen due to the politicization of this particular technology and the constant rah-rah positive pep talks from the government. The "roadmap" from the DOE reads like a real estate newsletter, with occasional dips into reality.

Hydrogen as a replacement for electricity production will probably be a component of future energy technologies, but declaring it a replacement for gasoline in cars, at this point, is really not believable.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Bisexuality is Superior?

Bisexuals are Superior?

I used to believe in the superiority of bisexuality with a special sort of zeal. The arc of my thinking was grounded in a foundation of being fundamentally different from those monosexuals out there - those gay and straight people that were incapable of truly loving people because they couldn't form significantly deep or romantic feelings about people of a particular gender.

I considered myself truly free, advanced, progressive, and somehow unencumbered by whatever psychological or biological failings that monosexuals had. This feeling of superiority was usually passively expressed. I didn't go around snickering at others or making snide comments or wearing T-Shirts declaring my superiority. However, I certainly believed it.

I felt sorry for everyone else. The very few bisexual people that I knew very well seemed to only confirm my prejudice. They were really quite similar to me in behaviour and worldview. We were the Chosen Few.

Of course, anecdote doesn't equal proof. The other bisexual people in my life were people that I got along with really well. The shared values and interests were probably the reason we got along, and not because of a particular orientation.

Identity politics, the idea that a part of your identity then determines your politics, and that some sort of political change needs to happen based on group identity, has been around for a long time, and greatly affected my attitude.

The gay rights movement can be described in terms of identity politics. Politically active gay people were agitated, motivated, organized, and had "whips", to keep the message coherent and focused. Members of the group that fell outside the majority identity had to form their own smaller groups, or go it alone. The US "gay rights movement" is largely one that identifies with the left. As a politically active gay person, you were (are?) assumed to be an unchurched Democrat. Queer people that were politically right-wing formed the Log Cabin Republicans.

In popular culture, Gay Republicans are viewed as a bit weird. The Republicans largely ignore them and many left-leaning politically active gay people seem to be embarrassed about them. The belief that a part of your identity should determine a leftist vote is directly challenged by groups like the Log Cabin Republicans.

Two other groups that have suffered a similar sort of identity politics (called Values Politics) are pro-life Democrats and pro-choice Republicans. This litmus test issue in the US has made it impossible for these candidates to get anywhere within either party. Conform or leave.

All of these realities work at cross-purposes to political progress. Being political definitely requires compromise, but when compromise isn't possible, your effectivity as a political agent is very much reduced. In many cases, it's nullified.

In contrast, leveraging certain issues can greatly enhance an otherwise incompetent candidate or voting bloc.

So, for a while, I bought into the identity politics belief structure. My identity meant that I should be political as well as politically active in certain specific ways.

I did not see the gay rights movement demanding "special" privileges or asking for anything that anyone else didn't already have. However, for me, the identity extended well beyond the basic political rights questions (e.g. equal access under the law means equal access under the law, so civial unions or civil marriage licenses should be available to any two people above the age of majority that want to enter into a marriage contract).

Then, I extended the identity politics to identity religion, identity socialization, and identity entertainment. Once I did this, I began to feel the full power of conformity, all within a community that placed high value on diversity. However, the message became clear. You can be diverse, as long as you are diverse the same way we are. In other words, you could be catholic, as long as you were an ex-catholic, or hopelessly guilty about it. You could be middle or high income, as long as you apologized for it or didn't talk about it or show it in any way, since to be financially successful meant that you weren't suffering any discrimination, unlike the other "authentic" queers, who were unfairly kept down and ghettoized by "the mainstream community".

You could live outside the accepted neighborhoods, but you had to drive to the acceptable neighborhoods for any event or to meet friends. You could go to the movies, or out dancing, or out to eat, but if you went to mainstream locations, the lack of enthusiasm for others to go with you was palpable.

Therefore I went to a lot of small shabby theaters, small dingy nightclubs, overpriced no-parking mediocre restaurants, and went to lots of meetings in university meeting rooms, where lots of talk occurred about equality and rights and petitions and parades. During parades in California, I twice got a close-up view of Phelps, who was protesting the parade. One of the parades I was in was tear-gassed right before it was supposed to start. Although we were too far back to tell what was going on, the word about the source of the delay spread down the line quickly enough. This only reinforced my belief that straights (and gays) were inferior in thought, word, and deed.

During this time I wasn't just a member, acting in a way I was expected to act. I did actually help organize a GLBT university group from scratch. I did experience what was undoubtedly two different hate or bias related violent crimes during the organization of this group.

The group that we formed was for social support, and not for political action, but the identity politics at the time created the environment where the assumption existed that we were just a campus version of ACT UP or Queer Nation, and not really there to provide GLBT people a club to join where they could then talk about identity issues, goof off, and eat out as a group. This was in the US South, so the predictable collision between what I tend to think of as fundamentalist christians and our hodgepodge of mostly ex-believers happened on a regular basis. We viewed ourselves as the modern version of lepers, exiled by the "pure" folk and regularly despised by the hysterical religious right.

Although there were several gay-friendly leftist church groups that welcomed people like us, no one I knew admitted to being a member. The prevalence of organized religion in the south is high (smothering, glittering, constant, ubiquitous). It's both resplendant and burdensome.

I think most of us were either too busy studying, or occupied with being hip and cool to really delve into any religious life with any amount of energy. Besides, the message was mostly negative, so why bother when you could insulate yourself from any moral or ethical or bigottedconfrontation by sticking with your own kind in a close-knit community.

We pitied the people in the rural areas just as the larger cities pitied people like us in the smaller ones. The pity flowed like a river, with imagined headwaters in San Francisco, picking up speed in New York and LA. The river churned through the south and finally curled inward to drench the rural midwest in a muddy blanket of pity from all the rest of the land.

"At least I don't live in the midwest", we'd say to each other. "Our city might not be the most progressive, but we have it better here than they do out in the backwards sticks."

The pity turned to horror when Matthew Sheppard was beaten to death in 1998, something universally assumed to be a hate crime within my community.

That more than anything proved in my mind that straight people were one cut above animals.

Of course I made exceptions. When I met a straight person that accepted either the equality of or the obvious superiority of bisexuality, or if they never gave me a reason to doubt them on these assumptions, then we got along famously. People expressing other beliefs were strictly limited to aquaintanceship at best.

In general, I believed that being bisexual in orientation meant the following.

I was more open-minded, accepting, and tolerant of others.
I was intellectually superior because I could handle ambiguity and was unafraid of conflicting ideologies. I could see paths out of most any intractable conflict.
I was a living symbol the shortcomings of monosexuality since I was capable of fully loving all people, not just those of a certain body type.
I was better at negotiation and communication.
I was more forgiving.

At some point, I realized that the cause and effect could not truly be proven. I could easily have become bisexual at some point in my life BECAUSE of a very strong training in communication, tolerance, and empathy, and not necessarily a better person DUE to being bisexual.

I got this message of communication, tolerance, and empathy from several sources and tried to run with it as best I could. But if I couldn't really prove a causality, then my snobbish attitude wasn't really valid.

This created the opportunity to be willing to move beyond identity politics. After meeting many more people that also felt a bit cramped by being defined by (and therefore marketed to, or politicized by) their orientation, it started to feel like a necessary political phase, and not an end condition. After meeting people who simply rejected labels on their orientation, which at the time seemed inexplicable (reject a label that important? when there is so much at stake? are you kidding? Don't you have any idea how bad the situation is! you're abandoning the cause!), I started to really think about the disadvantages as well as the advantages of allowing an identity to be defined by orientation.

What were we all working towards, if not to make sexual orientation largely meaningless as a predictor of value? I could no more argue that being bisexual makes someone better as a person, than the rest of mainstream america could argue that being bisexual makes someone worse as a person, although that attitude is still widely held (referencing the study "Heterosexuals' attitudes toward bisexual men and women in the United States" by Gregory M. Herek)

It would be nice if being bisexual made you a more advanced human. Then the recipe would be clear for a big step forward in human progress. To be honest, I still somewhat ascribe to that belief, but it's now more along the lines of self-affirmation or fuzzy daydream (sort of like my continuing happy dream of operating a small hardware store) instead of a prejudice.

Still to this day, however, I have the most trouble getting along with, understanding, and being friends with straight women. I can count the number of straight women friends that I have had in my life on one hand and not use all five fingers. Is this odd, considering that I'm a raving extrovert, and meet new people all the time? It can't be explained entirely by my hobbies and career, which are mostly male-oriented but not exclusively so. How male-oriented is knitting, sewing, quilting, and rose gardening? How come I can't seem to click with the large numbers of women I meet as a parent? I'm at home with little kids, and go days and days without meeting any men, especially if I just go to the play groups and school functions.

After all these meetings and groups and activities, the only person that I have clicked with in recent memory was someone's husband, mainly because he asked about the GPS receiver on the dash of my truck, and we talked enthusiastically about geocaching and hiking with our kids, and camping, and cars, and bear attacks, and random juvenile humor. His wife joined the conversation only haltingly, and didn't bother to maintain eye contact past the first few seconds.

The answer to the question of why conversations with men and queer women go so much better than with straight women is probably found more in my behaviour than theirs, but even deliberate attempts to include straight women in conversations either one-on-one or with men/boyfriends/husbands/queer women seems to fail regularly. Even if I devote all my attention to the particular assumed-to-be-straight woman, they tend to sidle off or appear uncomfortable or noncommittal.

Maybe the problem is that most straight women seem very boring to me. My assumptions about them have been that they care about their looks and status more than ideas and issues, that they tend to make decisions emotionally first and logically a distant second, that they expect both paternalism and feminism to coexist in their lives with no conflict, they tend to be mean-spirited and competitive about silly things, and that they don't have much of a sense of humor about life in general.

These are really negative assumptions, once you write them down and look at them. It takes effort to bash them back down beneath the noise of life. Negative assumptions create anxiety, which is easily apprehended as hostility, even when the anxious person doesn't really intend to project anything negative at all.

In the continuing process of trying to be an individual, which means you are composed of a lot of different facets of developing and sometimes conflicting identity, confronting assumptions like unsubstantiated feelings of superiority or the belief in negative group qualities about others almost seems like a requirement.

So that's a bit of my personal story on some of my experiences with identity politics and the belief that bisexuality is superior to monosexuality. I wonder what will happen going forward with the political and social scene in the US, when it comes to social science, philosophical and political developments, and identity politics, and whether or not it will continue to affect and shape how and what I think. I look forward to finding out.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Bisexuality Missing in Action as Academic Study Area? Not Exactly, But Then News Wasn't Good

It's been about 10 years since I really dug into gender studies. I'm definitely not an expert in the field. I never took any advanced coursework in it at the college level. I developed a working knowledge of the field through asking professors who teach gender studies courses if I could have a copy of their syllabus and book lists. Then I went and bought these books and talked about the things I learned with whoever would bother to talk back with me. So, given those disclaimers, here's what I recently noticed.

In the mid-1990s, a variety of books were published about bisexuality. The pace seemed, to me, to have slowed in the current decade. So, I thought either something good has happened over the past 10-15 years (bisexuality isn't that big of a deal anymore) or something bad has happened (bisexuality isn't that big of a deal anymore).

"Anything That Moves", a magazine about bisexuality, started publication in 1996 and ended publication in 2004. If magazines start somewhat coterminous with a rise in interest, and hang on for a bit after the decline of a supporting base, then the window seems to follow the rise and either decline or leveling off of books published about the subject.

So, I did an informal survey of books published from 1989 to the present to see if the reality fit my impression. Here's the books I know about, have, or have read and when they were published.

Needless to say, the amount of porn that one gets when trying to find blogs, web pages, or anything on the internet about bisexuality is immense. However, I did my scholarly duty of examining each bit to make sure it wasn't a book.

When Husbands Come Out of the Closet (Haworth Series on Women: No. 1) (Paperback)
by Jean S. Gochros 1989

Bi Any Other Name Edited by Loraine Hutchins and Lani Kaahumanu 1991
Anthology of coming-out stories.

Closer to Home: Bisexuality & Feminism (Women's Studies/Gay Studies) by Elizabeth Reba Weise 1992
Feminism linked with bisexuality.

Women and Bisexuality by Sue George (Paperback - Aug 1993)

The Other Side of the Closet by Amity Buxton 1994
This is the only book I ever reviewed on It portrays coming out as a portent of an inevitable end to a marriage. There are no positive depictions in this book for gay, lesbian, and bi people. The only way to happiness is divorce.

Dual Attraction : Understanding Bisexuality by by Martin S. Weinberg, Colin J. Williams, Douglas W. Pryor 1995

Vice Versa by Marjorie Garber 1995

Bisexuality and the Challenge to Lesbian Politics by Paula Rust 1995
Biphobia and identify politics. Why bisexuality appears to function as such a divisive issue for the lesbian community

Representing Bisexualities: Subjects and Cultures of Fluid Desire by Donald E. Hall 1996
Thoroughly postmodern, scholarly to the point of, well, it's hard to tell.

Identity without Selfhood : Simone de Beauvoir and Bisexuality by Mariam Fraser 1999

Bisexuality: A Critical Reader Edited by Merl Storr 1999

Bisexuality in the United States by Paula C. Rodriguez Rust 1999
Review of academic work through 1999. Leads off with a quote by Thomas Kuhn, which always warms the cockles of my heart. Quite good.

Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life by Marjorie Garber (Paperback - Feb 2000)
A republication of Vice Versa.

Bisexuality in the Lives of Men: Facts and Fictions by Brett Beemyn and Erich W. Steinman (Paperback - Jan 2001)

A History of Bisexuality (The Chicago Series on Sexuality, History, and Society) (Paperback)
by Steven Angelides 2001
Bisexuals are invisible. Duh.

Bisexuality (Pocket Essentials) by Angie Bowie (Paperback - May 2002)
Light fun and frothy.

Bisexual and Gay Husbands: Their Stories, Their Words (Paperback)
by Fritz Klein (Editor), Thomas Schwartz (Editor) 2002

Current Research on Bisexuality (Paperback) 2004
by Ronald C. Fox (Editor) This study examined how bisexually-identified individuals experience cultural attitudes toward bisexuality, how they establish a sense of community for themselves, and how their experience has affected their self-concept."

The Sex And Love Handbook: Polyamory! Bisexuality! Swingers! Spirituality! & Even Monogamy! A Practical Optimistic Relationship Guide by Kris A. Heinlein and Rozz M. Heinlein (Paperback - Jul 31, 2004)
Yes, it really does have all those exclamation marks in the title. This is mainly a book about non-monogamy and lifestyle choices, heavily supported with anecdotes. It's therefore primarily a "self-help" book for enhancing communication between people that have already chosen to be non-monogamous. It seems to include bisexual people as an afterthought. Non-academic.

Is He Straight : A Checklist for Women Who Wonder (Paperback) 2000 and 2004
A book purporting to provide a checklist to make sure you don't marry a gay guy. Not especially positive portrayals of gay or bi men.

Bi America: Myths, Truths, And Struggles Of An Invisible Community by William E. Burleson 2005

Essentially the same definitions established by earlier work, and the same assertion of invisibility. A history of the "movement" is included with the somewhat more useful examination of 13 myths about bisexuality from a focus group.

Bisexuals are easy, indiscriminate about who they have sex with
all bisexuals are swingers
Bisexuals have the best of both worlds, twice as likely to get a date
Bisexuals are unable to commit to either gender
Bisexuals are wives just trying to please their husbands, husbands justifying cheating
Bisexuality is just a phase on the way to being lesbian or gay
Bisexuals are unable to be happy, have low self-esteem, or are mentally ill
Bisexuals are disease carriers
Bisexuals are a very small part of the population
Bisexuals are just trying to maintain het privilege
Bisexuals can't be feminists
Bisexuals just want to be trendy
Bisexuality is a choice

Although the rate of publication seems approximately the same (no real decline like I thought), you can see a trend away from the political towards the academic and the practical. Anthologies are mostly about coming-out stories and are positive, but there are some very negative portrayals in anthologies such as The Other Side of the Closet and some silly checklist "make sure you have a real man" self-help books. However, real progress in the gender/orientation studies arena seemed to be happening.

Then I came across this study.

There was a Journal of Sex Research article in 2002 that concluded "heterosexuals dislike bisexuals more than gays, lesbians and most religous or enthnic groups."

Here is part of the article.

Heterosexuals' attitudes toward bisexual men and women in the United States.

by Gregory M. Herek

Although patterns of bisexual behavior have been documented throughout history and across cultures (e.g., Carrier, 1985; Ford & Beach, 1951; Fox, 1996; Herdt, 1990), bisexual men and women in the United States have gained recognition as a distinct sexual minority only recently. Bisexuals began to form social and political groups in the 1970s (Donaldson, 1995; Weinberg, Williams, & Pryor, 1994), but it was not until the late 1980s that an organized bisexual movement began to achieve widespread visibility in the United States (Herdt, 2001; Paul, 1983; Rust, 1995; Udis-Kessler, 1995). Around the same time, the heterosexual public became more aware of bisexual men as a group at heightened risk for HIV infection (Gelman, 1987). By the early 1990s, bisexuals were becoming an established presence in the organized gay movement, as reflected in discussions of bisexuality in the gay and lesbian press and the addition of "bisexual" to the names of many gay and lesbian organizations and events (Rust, 1995). Throughout the 1990s, the mass media frequently featured images of bisexuals (Hutchins, 1996; Leland, 1995).

Given the culture's relatively recent recognition of "the bisexual" as a category of sexual identity, it is not surprising that empirical research on heterosexuals' attitudes toward bisexuality and bisexual persons is scant. Like lesbians and gay men, bisexual women and men experience hostility, discrimination, and violence because of their sexual orientation (Ochs, 1996; Paul & Nichols, 1988; Weinberg et al., 1994). Unfortunately, the prevalence of such experiences is difficult to gauge because empirical studies of sexual minorities generally have not included bisexuals in their samples or they have combined data from bisexual and homosexual respondents in their published reports.

That's the introduction - skipping down to the definitions of measurement:


Attitudes Toward Bisexual Men and Women

Attitudes toward bisexual men and women were measured with 101-point feeling thermometers, which have been widely used in survey research (e.g., Herek & Capitanio, 1999b; Sapiro, Rosenstone, Miller, & the National Election Studies, 1998). Higher ratings (maximum = 100) indicate warmer, more favorable feelings toward the target whereas lower ratings (minimum = 0) indicate colder, more negative feelings. The instructions for the feeling thermometers were: "These next questions are about some of the different groups in the United States. I'll read the name of a group and ask you to rate the group on a thermometer that runs from zero (0) to one hundred (100). The higher the number, the warmer or more favorable you feel toward that group. The lower the number, the colder or less favorable you feel. If you feel neither warm nor cold toward them, rate that group a fifty (50)."

Attitudes Toward Other Groups

The thermometers for bisexuals were embedded in a longer series of feeling thermometers that were grouped by topic in the following order: (a) religious groups ("Protestants," "Catholics," "Jews"); (b) gay people ("men who are homosexual," "women who are lesbian or homosexual"); (c) "people who inject illegal drugs"; (d) "people with AIDS"; (e) racial, ethnic, and national groups ("Blacks," "Mexican Americans," "Puerto Ricans," "Whites," "Haitians"); (f) bisexuals ("bisexual men," "bisexual women"); and (g) groups defined by their stance on abortion rights ("people who call themselves pro-life and are opposed to abortion," "people who call themselves pro-choice and support abortion rights").

For the racial-ethnic thermometers, respondents rated their own group after they rated the other racial and ethnic groups. Within the gay, bisexual, and abortion thermometer groups, item order was randomized (e.g., one half of respondents rated "bisexual women" first and the remainder rated "bisexual men" first). Randomization was independent across groups (e.g., the order of thermometers in the gay series was unrelated to the order of the bisexual series). Responses to the bisexual thermometers did not vary by order of administration.

And then finally part of the results section of this study

"Mean thermometer scores for bisexual men and women were 43.4 and 45.8, respectively, and were strongly correlated, r (1273) = .90, p < .001. As shown in Table 1, feelings toward bisexuals were colder (less favorable) than toward any other group except injecting drug users." The sample's generally negative attitudes toward bisexuals were also evident in the number of respondents giving the lowest and highest possible ratings. Compared to most other groups, bisexual men and women received a rating of zero more often and a rating of 100 less often. Approximately 11% of respondents (n = 140) gave the lowest possible thermometer score for bisexual men, and 9% (n = 116) gave a zero rating for bisexual women. All but one of the respondents who gave a zero rating for bisexual women also gave a zero rating for bisexual men.


So... whatever "trendiness" is associated with being bisexual, as mentioned in several national news magazines over the previous decade, must not have translated into a positive perception on the part of the surveyed heterosexuals. Despite almost two decades of anthologies of coming out stories, surveys of bisexuality, bisexuality in popular culture, and academic works that are pretty good, the negative waves are still rolling into shore.

I think that the identity politics that lead to the marginalization of bisexuality from the gay community seem to have lessened as a point of discussion. I can understand the reasons, up to a point, for "queer political purity". Dilution of the lobby means less political capital. Bisexuals were "encouraged" to be counted with gays and lesbians. There was a conscious effort to include us in the names of organizations, if not necessarily in the community.

I can see where heterosexual angst about bisexuals may have spread. Being blamed for being the conduit of HIV infection from the "dirty" homosexual population to the "clean" straight population early on in the pandemic wasn't an unusual thing. With the stereotype of being sex-crazed, bisexuals made good boogeymen.

Maybe the overall concept of identity politics with respect to sexual orientation is fading. This might be due to the influence of postmodernism, or might be due to some sort of natural plateau that successful activists have achieved.

The more accepted and normal an identity (gay, straight, bi) is, then the less need for a separate community. The separation, agitation, and activist process eventually makes enough progress to where the people that take action feel that they've "changed" society enough to "rejoin" it. Or, at least, it's "good enough" for them. That doesn't mean that people coming after them, upon evaluating the same society, won't separate, agitate, and activate for further change.

Prejudice to tolerance to respect to full membership in the community is a very long process for certain groups. "Separate but equal" and "Don't ask, don't tell" and "you can keep your kids as long as you don't act in certain ways in front of them" are all stages in that process.

When the subject comes up, I am still told by some that I don't exist, that it's just a phase, or am immediately invited to swinger parties. With the exception of the assumption that I'm a swinger, the other two types of communication have certainly lessened through time.

This last issue - the "hot bi babe" phenomenon (regardless of the total lack of hotness that would be me) is the one thing that seems to be the most persistent. With the increasing awareness of polyamory, non-monogamy, acceptability of the discussion of adultery, swinging, and so on, this seems to be the natural course of many discussions about being bisexual.

The assumption that bisexuals are inherently non-monogamous seems to be a widely held one.

The assumption that bisexuals "have" to have partners of both genders to be "real" bisexuals is as silly as defining all virgins as having no sexual orientation at all until they have sex with someone.

The invisibility issue is quite intractable. Unless an effort it deliberately made, over the course of each friendship, relationship, acquaintanceship, or contact, to express your "identity", then people will simply assume according to whatever context they meet you in. Some people simply don't see their sexual orientation as a part of their identity in any way that requires them to "confess" it or make a point of it. It takes more effort to explain that you're bisexual if you appear to be heterosexual or homosexual by the relationship you're in. Many bisexual people prefer it this way. Not making waves lets you fit in. Fitting in has inherent social value. Why quibble over a silly label?

In the end, all of these issues and the seemingly successful progress, when reflected against the 2003 survey quoted above, seem to indicate that there is still a lot more work ahead for those that want to eliminate the negative stereotypes surrounding bisexuality.