Women and science

So being a major nerd for social progress, girls/women overcoming barriers, and science, this article on Jezebel brought a major tear to my eye. Totally embarrassing. In case you’re too lazy to click and read it, let me sum it up for you: an all-girl team just won the FIRST 2012 Championship with a device meant to help pasteurize milk in Nicaragua. Apparently Nicaraguan women don’t have easy access to clean milk, which results in all sorts of nastiness for them. Well, now they can drink their milk with peace of mind, thanks to an intrepid young band of femmy pioneers. Totally awesome.

This has got me thinking about that other article I wrote about about women in gaming. It seems like the STEM field is a major boy’s club. In fact, when I was talking to my doctor about starting life as a woman, the first thing she asked was, “Well, you’re not in any math or computer science classes, are you?” And she’s an MD! Why is it that STEM is such a boy’s club? I know, I know, there’s the whole stereotype of men being more logical while women are more about their feelings, but still, this is the 21st century. Shouldn’t we be past that by now?

I know I don’t really have room to talk since I opted not to go into STEM even though I am both interested in it and very good at it. I am thinking of going to grad school for philosophy of science, but it’s not really the same thing. However, one of my major concerns when it comes to going into a STEM field is the fact that I’m a trans lesbian, which is a triple whammy in that area: gay, transgender, and a woman. Really, I want to study physics and computer science, but I chickened out because I’m a wuss like that. My mistake. I now wish I could go back and start over and be a pioneering queer trans woman in a straight dude’s world, but I really don’t feel like being stuck as an undergraduate for another couple of years. My dad is talking about starting his own web-based software company and wants me on board as a designer, so maybe I can use that as an in to the world of computer science.

Anyway, enough about me, here’s why women should get into the hard sciences: women think differently from men. I know it’s probably not biological–it’s probably got more to do with social conditioning than anything like genes or innate neural differences–but still, the fact remains that there are usually marked differences between the ways in which women approach problems and the ways in which men do. If we only have one type of person trying to solve these problems, we’re only going to get on type of solution, when there may be other, possibly better, solutions waiting in the wings for someone with the right mindset to bring them into the open. It’d be best for the world of science–and the world in general–if we had as many different types of people as possible working on these issues.

Let’s make the world better. We can start by encouraging women and minorities to get into the STEM fields.

Some thoughts on sexual reorientation therapy

So in light of the recent introduction into the California Senate of a bill that would ban conversion therapy, CNN has been running a lot of stories on sexual reorientation therapy–also known as reparative therapy. I’m fairly surprised that they haven’t actually gone to anyone with the American Psychological Association, seeing as how they issued an official position on this topic three years ago. From the news release:

“At most, certain studies suggested that some individuals learned how to ignore or not act on their homosexual attractions. Yet, these studies did not indicate for whom this was possible, how long it lasted or its long-term mental health effects. Also, this result was much less likely to be true for people who started out only attracted to people of the same sex.”

–Judith M. Glassgold, PsyD

The conclusion of their investigation into the Ex-Gay Industry was that there is no scientific evidence that homosexuals can magically change their sexual orientation and that therapists and medical doctors should not make such claims. Seeing as how the APA is the authority on all issues psychological in this country, I feel like it’d be a good idea to listen to them and not some quack Christian “alternative” therapist. However, the quack team has a major player in their corner–a cabal of nutjob pseudoscientists known as the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homsexuality. Not only are these quacks incapable of evaluating scientific data, but their website is loaded with paranoid conspiracy theories. I think these guys are the ones who need therapy.

Anyway, the question I want answered is: How can people be this ignorant? Would people honestly disregard the opinion of the nation’s most reputable authority on human psychology just because some crackpot New Agers provide them with a few testimonials? Didn’t these people take 9th grade physical science? Testimonial evidence isn’t scientific evidence!

Honestly, I don’t think this bill goes far enough. If I had my way, I’d ban hypnotherapy, rebirthing therapy, alien abduction therapy, past life regression therapy, and that whole lot of New Age nonsense. Quack psychotherapies are nothing but a form of abuse, and these irrational crazies ought to be locked up. I don’t care if it’s a patient’s choice whom they see; however, people who “choose” to seek alternative psychotherapies are either not thinking clearly or not well-enough educated. The assholes who offer alternative and New Age psychotherapies are taking advantage of their clients’ ignorance, or else they themselves are so deluded that it is dangerous to let them practice psychotherapy. At the very least these pseudotherapists ought to be required seek informed consent and explain to their clients that there is absolutely no scientific basis for their nonsense.

I know, it sounds extreme, but abuse is one of my rage face buttons. All abuse everywhere ought to be put to an end. I applaud these pioneering lawmakers.

Why I secretly want to become a video game designer

Okay, so to people who’ve known me my whole life it’s not such a big secret. I nearly flunked out of high school because I spent most of my free time writing text-based adventure games for my TI-83+. Anyway, just this afternoon I finally decided to take the plunge and upgrade my lame old Google account to a fancy hi-tech Google+ account, despite the fact that most of my friends are on Facebook or Twitter. You see, I’m a huge Google nerd, especially since I’m either smarter than most tech nerds or much dumber (take your pick) and think that Apple’s only innovation was in combining other people’s ideas into “better” ones and then marketing them better than anyone else so people actually want to pay $1300 for a laptop they could get for $800-$900 if they didn’t just want an obscure Alan Turing reference that they don’t even get. </hating> Anyway, while perusing the Google+ world, I stumbled upon this post lamenting the dearth of women video game designers. It got me thinking about something that really pisses me off about video games, despite the fact that I spend exactly three billion hours a year playing them: they’re not only sexist, but heterosexist.

It’s something that’s been bugging me since I was 9 or 10 years old and my two best friends, the Heistman brothers, turned me on to what is now one of my favorite gaming franchise: Harvest Moon. The first game had just launched on the SNES (yes, they were still making SNES games in 1996) and Casey and Josh had just purchased their very own copy of what I thought would be an incredibly lame farm sim. Turns out, it’s one of the best games ever. Anyway, the one thing that bugged me about it was the fact that you couldn’t play as a girl. You see, even though I didn’t exactly know what transgender was or that people actually could switch sexes (I had just given up prayer as a viable route for fixing what ails you), I knew that I was really a girl, and I’d always had a hard time relating to guys, despite the fact that my two best friends were guys. When I watched movies and played video games, I always felt this disconnect between me and the male characters–and I still do. However, I also got pissed off by the fact that it seemed like the only female characters I had to relate to needed rescuing and marrying–sure, there was Samus Aran, but she was one fine lady in a sea of hairy dudes. That’s the first part of the Harvest Moon franchise that pissed me off.

Later down the road, Harvest Moon added a title with a female lead. This made me happy, however the fact that you could only marry dudes pissed me off. One thing I get touchy about as a trans lesbian is the fact that people assume I’m into guys. If they’re confused when the find out I was born a man yet identify as a woman, I don’t know what the fuck to call what they get when they find out that I am only sexually attracted to women. For some reason I’m into games that allow me to have a virtual love life, probably because I can look up what my partner wants on GameFAQs (that’s probably something I should work on in therapy). However, it’s very rare to find a game that allows me to both be a woman and marry women. The Fable games may be the notable exception, except I didn’t figure this out until after I’d played most of the main story of Fable 2 and realized by accident that I could propose to a lady-time. Sure, I’ve heard about the legendary “Best Friends system” in some Japanese Harvest Moon game, but they dropped that for the American port because they thought it would raise the ESRB rating. Why is it that virtual farmer dude can marry virtual pink-haired lady and make virtual babies and it’s still an “E” game, but when people of the same sex like to hold hands and live together the rating suddenly goes up? Granted, it never actually happened, but the fact that it’s even a major concern of Natsume’s should be a sad indictment of the state of our society.

So, the reason why I secretly want to become a video game designer: I want to make video games for queer folks. Epic fantasy adventures where you choose your own gender (I’ll even include gender-neutral options!) and you choose the gender of the love interest in the story (why does it have to be a love interest? why can’t they just be Best Friends? I’d do more for Josh than for any woman I’ve dated, with perhaps one exception) and you can save the world and marry the guy/girl/androgyne of your dreams in your own style. It would probably be a space opera, since the world is always in need of a good space opera.

So right about now this post is getting way too long and I still have a million more things to say because this is a topic that I’m incredibly passionate about as the Queen of the Über-Nerds, so I think I’ll break it up into parts. In closing, I’d like to say that this isn’t the last you’ve heard on this topic. If there are any enterprising young developers out there, look me up on one of the many social networking site and get in touch with me. My coding is a little rusty, but I’m an award-winning writer. I could make the characters and plot, you could write the code; together, we’d have the queer/feminist nerd market cornered.

 

Pseudonaturalism is the bane of my existence

Okay, so there’s this thing which has always bugged me since I was a young kajigger just getting into science and philosophy. It’s a philosophy that I call pseudonaturalism. It’s mostly used in conservative moral philosophies (moral naturalism) and liberal philosophies of science. It’s the theory that something which is “natural” is somehow superior/better than things which are “unnatural.” For instance, moral naturalists usually say that homosexuality is unnatural, therefore it is wrong. (I’ve never been able to ask a moral naturalist what they thought of rape, but I’d really like to hear it if any of those types are lurking out there.)

Anyway, my problem with this is how they define “natural.” For me, natural is the entire physical world. I think things which are natural are things which actually exist in the natural world (i.e., the universe) and which arise from the laws and processes of nature. I lump everything into two categories: “natural” and “supernatural.” The natural is the physical, empirically verifiable jazz what we deal with in our quotidian lives, and the supernatural is any nonsense that can’t be verified through naturalistic means. Such as crazy mutant killer GM food that gives our babies ADHD and makes them retarded.

You may say that my definition of “natural” is nonstandard (or unnatural, if you will). However, the reason I define it this way is because every other way of defining the term for technical use relies on arbitrarily drawing lines at some point or other with absolutely no rational basis. Take, for instance, the fear of GM food. Fear of GM food is based on scant rational scientific reasoning: the fear is that an allergenic protein will get spliced into a food product, which will then cause a reaction in some unwitting person who doesn’t realize that they are eating food laced with proteins from a substance they are allergic to. Granted, this fear is not unfounded; however, the GM industry has an absolutely sterling track record for self-regulation. The fearmongers like to whine that the FDA doesn’t have any explicit regulations for GM crops, but that’s just because none are necessary at this point: the industry does it on its own out of fear of the inevitable lawsuits which would arise if they didn’t. Why fix what ain’t broke? As for claims that GM food can cause ADHD and all sorts of other jazz (I’ve even heard cancer!), that’s just utter nonsense (i.e., “supernatural” mumbo jumbo). I also hear people bring in the pseudonaturalist argument here: we are “playing god,” which makes GM food wrong. To me, I don’t understand how this is playing god while giving an individual infected with HIV antiretrovirals isn’t. But then, there are people who think the pharmaceutical industry is evil because it’s all “unnatural.” For both of these distinct types of nutjob, I’ve come up with what I call the Banana Argument.

It may shock you to hear this, but every banana you have ever eaten in the past 50 years–every banana you’ve seen at the supermarket–has been genetically identical to every other banana you’ve encountered. The Cavendish banana, which is the Banana in Chief of the edible fruit world, is the product of direct human intervention. Wild bananas are so far removed from the Cavendish that you wouldn’t even recognize them. Somewhere around 10,000 years ago, humans in Asia decided to start “playing god” with different varietals of a wild fruit known to the modern scientific community as musa. Some of these fruits had sweet flesh but were riddled with massive seeds which were difficult to remove, while others had small seeds but bitter fruit. They figured out that they could splice and cross-polinate these plants to get mixes of traits of the parents in their offspring. This went on for thousands of years, and eventually the Cavendish was born in the 1960s in the wake of the extinction of the Big Mike (Gros Michel). However, the problem with the Cavendish–the problem with all modern bananas of the past few hundred years–is that it is completely sterile. This makes for great news for banana lovers, since it means you don’t have to pick out any seeds, but it also means that the only way to keep the species alive is to continually take cuttings of existing plants and growing them into new trees–new trees which are virtually genetically identical to the parent tree.

Now, are bananas natural or unnatural? Clearly, the pseudonaturalist would be forced to call them “unnatural” and swear them off as morally repellant/bad for your health. However, doesn’t this seem a bit counterintuitive? After all, bananas are one of the most nutritious foods around, and there are societies which use the leaves and skins of these plants for a wide variety of important doodads (paper, cloth, etc.). Should we really conclude that bananas are evil? If you’re a pseudonaturalist, it’s your only option. Pseudonaturalism makes arbitrary assumptions about what is and isn’t natural. Bananas are just the latest casualty of irrational thinking.

The funny thing is that genetic modification may be the only thing that can keep the banana from going extinct. Since bananas are all clones of each other, there is no genetic variance, which means they are incredibly susceptible to disease. One disease could wipe out the entire population. In fact, that’s how Cavendish became king: Big Mike, the previous banana sovereign, got wiped off the planet by a fungal infection which spread like wildfire through the identical plants. Cavendish was just waiting in the wings–designed with this fungus in mind–for Big Mike to sputter out. However, while Cavendish have been stuck in evolutionary stasis due to the fact that they reproduce through cloning, the killer fungus has been getting stronger. Now it’s mutated and Cavendish is no longer immune. Only this time there isn’t any back-up banana: once Cavendish is gone, it could be decades before bananas hit the shelves for human consumption once again. The only thing that can save bananaphiles now is good old genetic engineering. We need science to find us a protein what makes bananas rot-resistant, and we need it now. If we don’t, not only are we losing an excellent source of protein and nutrients, but whole economies could collapse, bringing down the global market. Genetic modification doesn’t seem so scary now, does it?

Okay, so I know it’s not the best argument. Here’s another one: arsenic is natural. So is mercury. Also, dying of cancer and men sleeping around with lots of ladies. On top of that, the vast majority of modern pharmaceuticals are derived from plants (the scientific discipline which studies plant-based drugs is known as pharmacognosy). Killing for reasons other than food (i.e., socio-political reasons such as war or punishment) is almost unheard of in the “natural” world. It’s perfectly natural to walk around completely naked, and it’s unnatural to shave or wear deodorant or brush our teeth. The point is, if you’re gonna start drawing the line between “natural” and “unnatural” and your basis for doing so isn’t something to do with natural laws, then you’re going to have to make some arbitrary decisions. It seems highly likely that these decisions would be difficult to defend. It’s just easier to do it my way.

Also, quit bitching and starting petitions trying to stop GM baby food. Sorry science likes to help the world. Next time we’ll leave our fates in the hands of a cruel, indifferent “natural” world in which we have only existed for a few milliseconds of geological time.

I thought there was a law against false advertising…

So this morning as I was getting ready for school and watching CNN I saw an ad for “clean” coal technology which claimed that “clean” coal technology has made a demonstrable impact on the environment. I found this a little fishy, since last I knew the earliest projected payoff from research into “clean” coal was 20-30 years from now. Granted, I haven’t done any reading on “clean” coal research since about last February, and it’s entirely possible there was a quantum leap in the technology while I was out to lunch, but I’m pretty sure one of my crazy liberal friends would have told me something about it. Anyway, it got me thinking about the real solution to the energy crisis: nuclear power!

In the nuclear business, there’s a saying that goes “the less you know the more you fear.” Essentially, the people who gripe about how horrible this truly amazing energy source is are all completely ignorant and have no right to bitch about a solution that could save the environment and create jobs. First of all, nuclear energy is more than 95% efficient, more than coal’s 90%, much more than wind’s max of 40%, and light years ahead of solar energy, which tops out at about 17%. Then there’s the footprint: the average nuclear energy facility takes up less than 1/3 of a square mile and can power an entire city. You’d need at least several hundred square miles worth of wind turbines or solar panels to get the same amount of energy. Also, for small developing communities, miniature reactors such as Toshiba’s 4S can be buried underground and maintained from a facility about the size of a city block. Then there’s the fact that it’s always on, unlike wind or solar, which require just the right conditions (I remember hearing that although wind’s peak efficiency is 40%, it usually operates around 10%, but I can’t remember the source so that may not be reliable). Also, government regulations stipulate that nuclear power facilities may not release more than 15 mrem of radiation into the surrounding area. Just to put that in perspective, the background radiation of the U.S. from radon and other naturally-occurring substances is 230-320 mrem. Breathing is a better was to get cancer than living near a nuclear facility.

But what about the risk of a major meltdown? Well, first of all, there has never been a true meltdown in more than 50 years of nuclear energy. Chernobyl was the worst nuclear incident (not counting the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, obviously), and that little snaffu only happened because the USSR was didn’t know what they were doing and the Chernobyl plant was so unsafe it’s a miracle it lasted as long as it did. Every nuclear country today has strict codes which would prevent anything on the scale of Chernobyl ever happening again. In all, there are only seven nuclear incidents at energy facilities I can actually think of. In about 60 years of developing the technology. There are or have been literally thousands of nuclear plants operating these past 50-60 years, and only 7 incidents. Furthermore, France, the world’s leader in nuclear energy, has never had an incident. They get 60% of their power from nuclear and shut down their last coal-burning plant in 2004 or 2005 (I forget; it was my freshman year of college). Their emissions are among the lowest in the industrialized world. Also, they make a killing selling nuclear-produced energy to neighboring countries. So does Italy. Sounds pretty good for the economy to me. We can either sell to Canada or buy from them; which do you want it to be?

About now I’m sure some ignorati is thinking I forgot about the whole “nuclear waste” issue. While it is true that nuclear reactors produce radioactive byproducts, I don’t like to call it “waste,” mainly because most of it is reusable. The only problem is that the U.S. government, which is loaded with ignorant nuclear-haters, will not fund research into the best way to reclaim this “waste.” Nuclear could be a renewable source of energy if only the government would cut the crap and get on the side of science.

In closing, I would like to say that I have heard some radical skeptics claim that radiation from Chernobyl has never been linked to a single case of cancer or a birth defect. Technically, this is true, but only because there’s no real way to tell exactly how most cancers or birth defects come about. The cancer and birth defect rates of people living in the area at the time were actually closer to the norm than one would think, but I am pretty sure it’s going too far to claim that it didnoharm. Also, there’s the issue of the people killed in the actual explosion. However, if you’re looking for damage to the environment, you’ll have to look elsewhere. The Chernobyl incident may have been the best thing to happen to the ecosystem in the area since humans first settled there. Now it is a beautiful forest absolutely thriving with wildlife, none of which seem to be suffering any ill effects from the remaining background radiation.

So, in a nutshell: coal is never clean and wind and solar are impractical. It’s time to go really green.

The amazing properties of Chinese purple

So I’ve been celebrating my Spring Break by geeking out and watching PBS and National Geographic documentaries on Netflix. I’ve always been a big Nova fan, but now I’m starting to get into the newer series Secrets of the Dead. I just watched an episode of the latter about the ancient Chinese terracotta warriors and learned something interesting about a rather popular ancient Chinese synthetic pigment. It’s called Chinese purple and its origins are most likely rooted in ancient Chinese alchemy. The theory advanced in this episode of Secrets of the Dead is that it was first created in experiments to synthesize jade, which the ancient Chinese believed to bring immortality (I guess it was the ancient eastern version of the philosopher’s stone). Anyway, the evidence for this argument is that the chemical composition of Chinese purple is identical to the chemical composition of a form of synthetic jade from that period known as Chinese glass.

Being more well-versed in Egyptology that ancient eastern anthropology, I was familiar with a similar pigment, Egyptian blue, but this Chinese purple stuff seems a lot cooler because of an interesting discovery.

A physicist inserted a sample of Chinese purple into the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory’s 45-Tesla/32mm Hybrid Magnet’s core (the world’s strongest magnet) and super-cooled it in order to analyze its physical properties and found that at extreme temperatures the pigment actually loses its third dimension! Not being a physics expert (but having been raised by one, if that counts for anything) I had heard that stuff such as this was theoretically possible, but I didn’t think it had ever been observed (some scrounging on the internet confirms that this is the first time such a miraculous occurrence has been experimentally observed). Being a computer nerd, I’m quite excited about what this could mean for the future of computing. (Secrets of the Dead tells us it also has some bearing on rail travel, if you’re a real nerd.)

More about Han purple and super-science.

A brief history of a skeptic

Sitting here in the student union perusing the Skeptic’s Dictionary when I should be working on my paper about sensibility in Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village” and I thought it might be nice, since I’ve obviously got people reading my blog whom I don’t know, to give a little overview of why I am a skeptic and a brief history of how I came to be one.

I didn’t always hate all things irrational. In fact, when I was younger, I was a true believer of everything from haunted houses to faith healing. I attended séances and practiced witchcraft, all the while taking ginkgo biloba for fear of losing my memory. One time, I even thought I spoke to the devil. (In retrospect, I now realize that this was a hypnopompic hallucination.)

My belief in the irrational was due largely to the fact that my father is a physicist and former calculus teacher at the college level and we never had a great relationship (it has improved over the past two years or so). For me, holding all sorts of crazy beliefs was a way to rebel against my evil daddy.

I began to see the light when I was 14 and joined my school’s philosophy club. I found out that not only am I gifted at both logic and philosophy (I actually got a perfect 100% semester average in Modern Logic my sophomore year of college), but these things are incredibly fun. I’ve always been driven by the need to know things and solve problems (I am a classic INTP… if you believe this shit), and I quickly realized that if I think logically about things these needs are easily fulfilled. Simple as that.

I will admit that I am a little harsh towards believers, because I tend to take logical thinking very seriously. To me, humans’ capacity to reason and think critically and analytically are the key features that differentiate us from other animals, so when people don’t exercise these faculties it makes me think that they’re no more evolved than my pet cat. I’m not saying that you have to be 100% logical 100% of the time; that’s wicked difficult (trust me, I’ve tried). In fact, I’m probably only logical 60-75% at most of the time because I suffer from severe Major Depressive Disorder and when I am symptomatic my logic skills seem to go right out the window. (Usually the first step to recovering from an episode for me is forcing myself to think logically about whatever issue is causing the most anxiety.)

Some people may think it’s harmless to believe in magic and other such bullshit, but I think it does major harm in that it hinders our species’ evolution. Evolution never stops, and one day we will give rise to something greater. I only hope that that new species doesn’t worship dead carpenters or pop colloidal silver.