Even cool summers can trick you!

It’s been a cold year here in eastern Pennsylvania. A brutal winter (and by brutal, I mean I was snowboarding just about every day—whaddya gonna do?) has been followed by an unusually cool summer. I’m no great fan of temperatures that melt the sunglasses off of your face, so I’ve enjoyed every breezy day of it. 

As blissfully mild as the summer has felt, though, the facts disagree. In reality, it only seems cool by comparison to recent, unbearable summers. Our Midatlantic summer was cooler this year than in recent years, but it still managed to be about as hot as an average summer—overall. The real difference is that we’re accustomed to lengthy strings of sweltering days punctuated by cooler days. This year, every day was average. We didn’t even have to suffer any heat waves.

After I read the article about it in my local newspaper, my instincts told me something was wrong; I just didn’t believe it. But both Weatherbase and Weather Underground seem to corroborate: 2014 has been average, but not especially cool. Even individual months barely strayed from average temperatures.

It should serve as a good reminder that perception can be grossly mistaken. Global warming deniers are all too happy to tell you that the Earth is actually cooling, not heating up, and point to years like this as evidence. The real story is that climate is intensely complicated, and no single chart—no matter what evidence it purports to illustrate—can tell the whole story. Each of us has such a limited pool of data available to our senses every day, but we can’t help making observations about the world around us. This summer, I “knew” it had been cooler than average in my region, but I was wrong. Scientists measure climate across the globe; meteorologists measure weather in one region. Conflicting reports from the two of them don’t cancel each other out.

That’s just how science works. Every researcher has a specific niche, and by working together, collaborating across borders, and building massive piles of data, scientists can paint a picture of how the world looks. That’s why science is a reliable process: no one entity has control over it. Ultimately, the data have the final word. And right now the final word is frightful.

And so this year, my fellow East Coasters will enjoy a pleasant summer while our brethren on the left coast face the most destructive drought on record. How’s that for a chilling thought?


[seeking] Alien artifacts on Mars and the Moon!

I love The Daily Galaxy. I don’t browse it as much as I used to (I don’t browse anything as much as I used to) but every now and then I’ll click through a link on my Twitter feed to an interesting-sounding post. I absolutely love astronomy. The universe in all its glory is a miraculous, baffling place to exist, and as far as we know, it’s pretty much the only place to exist. So it would make sense that other entities, if they chose to exist, would have to do so in some distant corner of our own universe.

So anyway, back to the Daily Galaxy. I spotted an article a few days ago about our ongoing search for alien life. SETI, apparently, thinks that they might not be so distant after all. While the SETI that you and I know have done the bulk of their research by searching for measurable signals sent out by advanced extraterrestrial civilizations, they are planning to broaden their approach to include scrutinizing publicly-available images of the moon and other alien surfaces for evidence of technological artifacts.

Bear in mind that these aren’t the crazed words of hysterical stargazers; the Arizona State University researchers quoted in the article aren’t what you’d call confident that we’ll find any space hideouts on the Moon. Searching the Moon, however, makes sense, given its proximity to us. Not only do we currently have the technology to make an almost unlimited number of detailed observations of the surface, it also makes an excellent training grounds for us. We already know that the surface is littered with relics of space travel—our own—and so we know what they would look like if we were to stumble across more on other worlds. I suspect, too, that by practicing on the Moon, we’ll learn to streamline the process.

So yeah, that’s neat. But as much as I would love to imagine the excitement of finding something, I think it’s probably safe to assume that we won’t. The Voyager probes – the fastest-moving human-made vehicles in the universe – have been flying away from the Sun for 34 years, and they’re not out of the solar system yet. Sure, all the planets are but memories to the spacecraft, but they’ll still be locked into the heliosphere – the Sun’s sphere of influence – until 2015 or so. At its speed, Voyager 2 is expected to pass near (in galactic terms) Sirius in about 300,000 years.

300,000 years, by the way, is a geologic nothing. We’ve only been human for 200,000 years or so (dinosaurs, by comparison, reined for 160 million years). We’ve only been farming for about 10,000 years. All of the art and culture and history and mythology with which we identify have only been around for half that time. If it’s all Greek to you, remember that the Greek language has only been with us for about 2% of our time on Earth. The universe may not care about such a pitiful span of time, but to us, it’s unimaginably long. And space is big.

But let’s just assume that the technology exists to cut that interstellar journey down to, say, 100 years. We aren’t even quite sure that there are planets orbiting Sirius. Again, let’s assume that there are, and they had developed an enormously successful and curious civilization of space explorers. Would they really aim their probe for the Sun and hope to land on a planet? Would they even have a high confidence of our planetary status? Or would they instead shoot for Procyon? Procyon is closer to Sirius than we are by more than three light years.

The Truth is Out There

There is a vast, mind-boggling unlikelihood of finding anything with this venture. The no-stone-unturned approach can get results, but… only if there are results to get. I think it’s difficult to divorce ourselves from our earth-centric view of the universe, but I do wonder whether an alien civilization would have had much interest in our stretch of the galaxy given how difficult it can be to obtain solid data even for nearby stars.

I love what SETI is doing, however. Even with zero expectation of results, the exploration is awesome. We are a nation of explorers; it’s what we do. I love projects that engage the public’s imagination and encourage us to relive our childlike enthusiasm for science.

And remember, up until the 1960s we just assumed that life couldn’t withstand the sustained and extreme heat of a geyser. If scientists had never bothered looking, the sulfur-laced waters of Yellowstone’s Lower Geyser Basin might still be thought of as stinky, lifeless sludge. The discovery that life can in fact exist in those conditions opened our collective eyes to the existence of extremophiles.

It doesn’t hurt to look, that’s all I’m saying. I don’t think it’s necessary to find evidence of other life to really appreciate the wonder of the universe. Even if we’re alone out here, the unbelievable and majestic enormity of it all should give us plenty to think about. The universe is an amazing place, and I wouldn’t want to exist anywhere else!

How do you guys feel our place in the universe? Let me know in the comments. Shoot me a Spacebook message or Tweet me some fun astro-facts. And don’t forget to sign up for e-mail subscriptions if you haven’t done so yet! I don’t post often, so you don’t want to miss it when I do!

There are another hundred billion stars in the Milky Way. Odds are one or two of them have seen alien lives come and go. Maybe they haven’t. Maybe we really are a fluke. But if we are sharing this vast expanse of space with somebody else, then let the intergalactic kegger begin!


The Alchemist’s Guide to All Stuffs

So my sister wanted me to go out with her last night. I wasn’t even wearing pants, let alone awake, but when adventure calls, I have to answer. So I re-pantsed myself and steeled myself to drive into the cold, lonely night. Well, it wasn’t that cold. And it was only about 7:30, so it wasn’t that lonely, either.

So out I went.

We went to BigLots, our go-to place for Awesome itemry. While they continue to deliver a diverse selection of nifty goods, they’ve been having a really slow quarter in the beverage department. Previous finds of excellence there have included full cases of Rockstar on-the-cheap (many varieties, including the hard-to-resist Citrus), as well as my all-time favorite, Syzmo. They also had Howling Monkey, whose Cola variant my sister was not quite so fond of, but I enjoyed both the regular and the cola.


Except to say that in general, I’m not a fan of colas, because most of them are so loaded with sugar and so sparse of flavor the primary flavor is “sweet.” However, I do love flavorful, relatively unsweet colas. I thought Howling Monkey was fantastic, and it had quinine. Neat.


So a little while ago I decided to just go ahead and try Red Bull Cola, even though I didn’t really think it would be too fabulous. I was mistaken. Remember how I said I like flavorful, relatively unsweet cola? Red Bull Cola was, in fact, a fabulous example of the category. At first I thought I’d made a mistake. I only bought one can, but had already promised to split it with my sister. I was disappointed, and eyed her portion with much jealousy—until, that is, she determined that such a beverage is not for her. MORE FOR ME.

And more for me indeed, I would later find. Last night, you see, we went to BigLots. In the face of the recent dearth of quality energy products, I’ve found myself less and less desirious of a visit there. It’s almost a guarantee that they won’t have anything.

Still, my heart always yearns for some deliciousness to happen there, even though I no longer expect it to. And in a secret little corner of my heart, I was hoping to find Red Bull there. The cost-per-deliciousness ratio of Red Bull just isn’t generally compatible with my own money-per-wallet ratio. That doesn’t stop me from hoping that, like Rockstar did before it, Red Bull would make itself available to me. Perhaps as some sort of karmic reward for wanting it so bad.

As I always do, I dutifully reported to the beverage aisle straightaway upon entering BigLots. Disappointment awaits at every turn. Well most turns.


Gleaming from its humble place on the shelf sits the grandest stockpile of deliciousness I’ve seen in a long time. Its glorious presence cut through my energy ennui and punched my Awesomeness lobe into action. My sister grabbed me, and my head whipped around to behold the sight.

Sitting there, on the shelf, in the smashing foods section, in BigLots, was a monstrous collection of Red Bull Colas. OH MY.

There were more than I ever could know what to do with, but I stared them down greedily as my sister wrestled with a case of them. How freakin’ awesome. Right? Right??

Yeah, I’m right.

So I bought a full case of 24 cans. The price was irresistable, after all. 75¢ each? You ever price these bad boys out in a grocery store? Definitely gotta get ‘em. I figure, it’ll last me for months at the rate I drink soda.

So now I’ve got all the Red Bull Cola I could ever want (for now), but then I start thinking about the Universe and stuff.

The Universe

(and stuff.)

If I hadn’t gone out with my sister last night (remember, I originally wanted to do stuff that included staying in), I would never have stumbled on this excellence. And this excellence is one that I’d been wishing for lately. Then I started thinking about books like The Secret, or The Alchemist, or films like What the Bleep Do We Know?. A core concept that they and countless other inspirational, self-help, and motivational philosophies share boils down to “Ask and ye shall receive.”

Anybody who knows me knows I don’t care for The Secret. It takes a perfectly good concept—ask for something and receive it—and obscures it with worthless hokum. The basic concept is sound, and it is easily demonstrable. However, The Secret takes it way too far to be of any use for anybody. The Secret alleges that the simple act of thinking positively will guarantee you positive results, and it cites examples of how this can happen. However, positive thoughts tend to translate into positive actions in individuals who already have sufficient drive.

What the Bleep takes things to the next level of absurdity. It tells us that because we live in a universe with a quantum consciousness, our wildest desires can come to fruition if we apply our own quantum minds in the process of considering them. Think and ye shall manifest. Quantum flapdoodle.*

The Alchemist is a book that I read reluctantly. My photo instructor Ryan Hulvat gave everybody in my class last year a copy (wasn’t that nice of him?) and I, smarty-pants that I am, decided instantly and unwaveringly that it wasn’t my kind of book. I read it anyway.

It’s a fast read, and it really doesn’t leave much to the imagination. With the glowing praise I’d been hearing about it from all directions, I had developed quite the set of expectations by the time I opened it. I was prepared to navigate this glorious sea of prose and be mesmerized by its delicate nuances. I had hoped to find the universe’s truths and secrets unraveled before my eyes as wave after wave of ideas swept over me.

Instead, I trudged through a 150-page list of vaguely-interesting concepts and self-evident sensibilities. I was not impressed.

* I wish I could tell you who originally came up with the term ‘quantum flapdoodle,’ but I can’t seem to recall it.

Make It Happen

The Alchemist’s advice essentially boiled down to “If you know what you want, then go get it!” This seems hardly a revelation. I did not enjoy being treated to this didactic bludgeon of a book, and yet despite myself I have continued to find myself thinking of that basic idea. The idea that you must make things happen, instead of merely thinking about them, or hoping for them, or wishing for them, or just waiting for them to happen on their own. Of course, by the end of the book there was a bit of a miracle (I won’t ruin it for you, but I will assure you that you’ll be disappointed).

Still, at the core of it is the idea of making our own destinies. Action is always better than inaction. Positive action is always better than negative action. This is the real “secret,” and it isn’t really a secret. The biggest dreams are worthless if they’re always just dreams.

So I’m willing to chalk it up to coincidence that I found an awesome deal on a soda I’d been wanting. There were many times I went to BigLots that I didn’t find squat. Or soda. And really, I’d been hoping for Syzmo for far longer, and with far greater intensity; I was mildly hopeful at best for Red Bull Cola. But I’m also willing to concede that despite the chances that we’d find something that we liked, if I hadn’t gone out those chances would have remained at zero. Statisticians revel in the explication of seemingly improbable events, and I tend to be unimpressed by “random” coincidences. But I am a fan of adventure, and of awesome stuff, so when adventure calls, I’ll never say no.

Even if you can explain a coincidence away, it never hurts to put yourself in the way of one, should one happen!

New Year’s Resolutions, Part 3

Or: When is a New Year Really New?

Okay, this will be my last new-year-themed post, I almost promise. I never really understood the wisdom behind having a “new year” begin in January. What’s actually new at that time of year? Everything’s dead and blanketed in snow and ice, daylight only lasts for a handful of hours compared to high summer, and, well, that’s it.

I understand that traditions will be traditions, and it works out mighty well for students who are almost guaranteed to have the time between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day free of school. I certainly appreciate that time off. Nevertheless, it’s a senseless one. I mean, sure, in a way it’s sort of new-ish, since the days are getting longer, but by that reasoning it would have to be on the solstice – and then it would steal some of Christmas’ yuletide thunder.

A better candidate, I think, would be the vernal equinox, on March 20/21. We could still celebrate at midnight and everything, for those who think that’s something fun to do. But that’s the first day the days become longer than the nights and that’s a better yardstick to use, by my reckoning. Add that to the spring thaw, and the first spring blossoms, and all that, and you’ve got yourself a nice cozy holiday.

Oh, and did I mention it’s far away from Christmas and Thanksgiving, so your New Year’s feast doesn’t have to compete with the big guns for gastronomic real estate? Yeah, that. Okay, so Easter sometimes falls pretty close to this date. But it frequently falls a healthy couple weeks away, and when it doesn’t, we’ll just have to plan accordingly. Better that than have to always rely on it being overshadowed by a bigger holiday.

Of course, there are a few disadvantages. Namely, it’s in the middle of a month, and that’s unusual and awkward. To that, however, I say—”Deal with it.” It’s 2011, let’s just act grown up about it. Seriously, if we can deal with a 7-day week,* we can deal with a new year happening in the middle of March.

Another major disadvantage is that it means, necessarily, that there are going to be three months left unaccounted for. I intend to celebrate the new year this March, but that means I am left in confusion as to what year we are actually in. Should 2010 get an extra three months or should we kick off the new New Year with a one-time-only fifteen month calendar? Or should we just not do anything and hope no wars break out and we’ll forget these months ever happened?

I vote that we leave these three months in 2010. 2010 was a good year anyway, and we may as well finish off the old system with an extra-funky calendar, and start the new New Year (the True Year, if you will) with a fresh, beautiful calendar. Yeah, that works for me.

The third major disadvantage is, of course, a matter of instituting it. It won’t do any good if it’s just me following this new thing. If it doesn’t get assimilated it’s about as useful as Internet Time. But whatever. If it gives me a reason to have a party in the early parts of the year, then that alone should make it better than having it in January, when no reasonable person should have to host another party!

Happy True Year’s! …eventually.

* Seven’s a prime number, and is thus not divisible by any useful means, and our calendars pay the penalty for our hubris. And our other hodgepodges of disordered time measurement need no further discussion.

Oh, and about that stupid zodiac thing…

The Internets have been abuzz with all this talk about the zodiacs shifting. This is stupid and I want you to take it away from your mind right now. In the first place, I don’t even buy the whole zodiac thing, so that’s stupid already. In the second place, I’m a friggin’ Gemini, not a Taurus, and I’m really attached to that identity. Don’t try to take that away from me, you probably jerk. In the third place, that’s not even news; even astrologers have known this for years, and astronomers have never given a crap. I don’t know why the sudden revelation. I’m still a Gemini. Blogger has apparently, based on my birthday, updated my description to list me as a Taurus. I’m a friggin’ Gemini, Blogger. Do not lie to my adoring public. Horoscopes may be a bunch of stupid make-em-ups, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let any punk astronomer tell me I can’t be a Gemini! End of story.

I’m Not a Cynic!

I’m not a cynic! If you could see me right now you’d see me sitting here not being cynical. It’s true! However, the obvious truth that I’m not cynical seems to escape a lot of people, who, misinformed, send that accusation – nay, that insult – flying. It stings, a little!
Of course, it’s relevant to mention that the terms cynical and skeptical are often confused, a misfortune that is exacerbated by the poor behavior of some particularly vocal skeptics. Nevertheless, since this is hardly the main issue, I won’t address it except to remind the reader that cynicism and skepticism are not at all the same, and only tangentially related. In fact, while I never like to be associated with cynicism, I don’t mind being associated with skepticism so much.

A participant in the Women’s 5K Classic
©2010 Justin Gifford
Cynicism, you see, is the desire to say “You are wrong” to someone for no other reason than to be contrary. Skepticism, conversely, is the desire to say “I am wrong” when you are. Unfortunately, a lot of a skeptic’s time is spent saying “You are wrong” to people who are demonstrably wrong and refuse to accept it. Of course, a skeptic’s jurisdiction is only those times when someone is knowingly (or unknowingly) distorting the truth in a way that could affect others.

A cynic’s self-assigned jurisdiction is everywhere and everything; he never runs out of material to deride. Unfortunately, good, healthy skepticism often comes off as mere derision, but the goals are different. When I express my (sometimes strong) opinions, my goal is not to deride things I happen to dislike but to save my people from themselves and to cause them to apply a higher standard of analysis, behavior, and ultimately, charity. If I also take time to deride things while I’m at it, that’s just a perk that brings me great amusement.
I often take a stance contrary to convention. I admit, I sometimes do this as an exercise in rhetoric. I was involved in debate teams in middle school and high school, and I confess that I very often argue for positions that are not my own. I was just telling my fiancée, in fact, that among my very favorites of all literature are Plato’s dialogs. I learned from Plato not what to think, or even how to think, but how to generate thoughtful discourse. And that is something that I value far more highly than being right. But the result of my delight in the rhetorical is that I often find myself defending tenuous positions for the sheer challenge of it. What that comes off as, however, is uncompromising jerkiness. Or cynicism.

Even that isn’t generally much of a problem for me, however. The real problem is when I defend positions I really do believe in! Some of these positions are…unpopular. Like my opinion on charity ribbons, which has gotten me branded as a cynic several times in the past. A wiser man might change his opinion.

The Race, & Cetera

Everybody had a great time at the race.
©2010 Justin Gifford

My boss Ryan Hulvat wears a LiveStrong bracelet. Now, I generally avoid lumping those bracelets, which really did achieve their goal of raising money, with some other pieces of awareness flair of lesser consequence. But over the weekend I got myself roped into a discussion in which I made known my opinion on awareness ribbons. The timing was all the more unlucky because we were at the Women’s 5K Classic with the PDP students and Count Olaf Olaf  Starorypinski.

The Women’s 5K is an annual charity event to aid research in breast cancer and provide an open, positive forum for survivors, family members, and everybody else. I suppose their stated mission also includes raising awareness, but the way I see it the real value of events like this is not really raising awareness in people who aren’t already aware but providing an emotional outlet for those who already are.

As we were walking thence I envisioned fields of ribbons swaying to and fro with the rhythm of solidarity. 5,000 soulful women waving their ribbons skyward like so many pink lighters. In reality, however, there weren’t that many ribbons. A reality that, I feel, strengthens my position! These women were here for a reason; they were here doing instead of merely saying.

Ribbons play a distant second fiddle when actual activism is happening and, as I’ve said, “raising awareness” is of secondary importance when just about everybody present was there because of their awareness of the situation. These are the things that really matter to me; people going out and doing good.

What I don’t like is passive solutions. I really don’t like slactivism (that term, however, I’ve come to love). So yeah, I don’t like ribbons, because they’re all but meaningless now. Sure, they were meaningful at one point, but they are a victim of their own success. So, in a way, are LiveStrong bracelets, whose list of imitators is pretty impressive. Maybe I have come off a little bit too harshly on the hapless things.

Maybe I should be clear that what I don’t like is when a meaningful symbol is misappropriated in a way that waters down the original message. Maybe I should be clear that I don’t detest the charities themselves, but the outdated methods. In order for a campaign to be continually effective, it needs to continually adapt to the times. If such a sadness as icon abuse happens, the charity needs to take appropriate measures. That’s all.

This little girl was inspired to do a somersault!
©2010 Justin Gifford

I feel the same way about so many things commonly defended as “good.” Just because something was once good does not mean it will continue to be. 

And that’s where skeptics and cynics get confused in the popular mind. A skeptic continually adapts his perceptions so that he can continue correcting the wrongs of the world. We cannot afford the luxury of passiveness, or of allowing something to continue affecting our friends and families long after their goodness has waned. If my boss has personal reasons for wearing a LiveStrong band, I can’t argue with his right to wear it. But I can argue with their overall utility.
And that’s the difference between skeptics and cynics. A cynic will argue that something is bad. A skeptic will argue that something isn’t useful. The difference was apparent at the 5K, for instance. A cynic might have derided the entire thing and brushed it off as sentimental balderdash. I (and I might remind you that I am not a cynic) loved it. I thought it was an awesome time, and it really does make me feel good to see so many people united to do good. Even if it had no other effect than to temporarily boost a sense of community it would have been a great event.

Tie a Generic Ribbon ‘Round Some Manner of Aged Tree

I don’t know why I hate awareness ribbons as much as I do. It can’t be a simple matter of their ubiquity, because there are lots of things whose ubiquity I rather appreciate. Like air, or pumpkin spiced treats in the Autumn. It certainly can’t be because they’re inherently bad, because they obviously aren’t. It can’t be because they encourage people to do stupid things, either, because as far as I can tell they don’t do that.
But I do hate awareness ribbons.
Which is a shame, because awareness ribbons are icons of our collective struggles against a variety of misfortunes. Which makes detesting them a particularly sticky subject. I should point out, therefore, that one thing I definitely don’t hate is any amount of research that can help ease someone’s pain. So what is it about awareness ribbons?
© 2010 Justin Gifford

Well first thing’s first: do the things work? Okay, that’s actually the second question. The first one should be, ‘what are they supposed to do?’ What are they supposed to do, anyway? Raise awareness, I guess. But seriously, have you heard of AIDS? You have? Good, then you’re aware. Problem solved. How ’bout breast cancer? Same thing. So obviously awareness ribbons don’t raise awareness, or if, preposterously, they had managed to alert a few people of the existence of global problems, they can only do that once, so the purpose is short lived.

Perhaps it’s more appropriate to refer to them by their other moniker, ‘charity ribbons.’ Perhaps the real incentive to wear them proudly is to encourage your peers – and anybody else who happens to see your bumper or backpack or your dress at the latest gala – is to encourage donations to the various foundations that produce these ribbons. Seems like a pretty passive way of encouraging donations. Essentially, you’re just tacking it onto yourself and forgetting about it, the hope being that somebody will happen to spot it and find themselves itching to hand over a few bucks.

The idea is sound, in that the abysmally-low chances of it working are still better than zero, which is the chance it would work if you didn’t wear the ribbon. But the chances may not actually be all that much greater than zero anyway. By passively wearing these ribbons, we as a society have saturated our attention with them to the point that they are no longer eye catching. Essentially, the ubiquity of charity ribbons seems to have driven us to stop noticing them, so the chances of them actually encouraging a donation are even poorer than you would think—and they were pretty poor to begin with.

What, then? Ah, I thought to myself, the ribbons’ purpose must not be to provoke donations at all! They must themselves be the donations! The manufacturers of these ribbons must be the foundations themselves! I checked. They aren’t. Then they must donate the proceeds to the foundations they support. They don’t. A particularly nasty tactic used by advertisers is the promise of some proceeds dedicated to supporting awareness. Well, considering that just by displaying a huge swatch of pink all over the packaging the products are ‘raising awareness,’ it seems that aside from covering the cost of the pink ink, manufacturers don’t really have to do anything further with the proceeds. Except pocket them.

Even when they purport to donate a portion of proceeds, consumers are rarely told what portion (often it’s uselessly small), or to what foundation they will be going. Understandably, some proceeds have to go to the upkeep of the effort; that’s simple economics. But then the foundation has to take a percentage of that donation to cover their costs, so in the end it seems better to cut out the middle man and donate directly to the charity.

If You Feel Aware, Are You?

If the ribbons themselves aren’t really an excellent source of income, helpless consumers are left to figure that awareness ribbons are really only good for raising awareness. So now we can go back to our question—do the things work? Do they raise awareness? In a word, yes.

Some people I’ve spoken with contend that the ribbons really do work, in that they cause people to be more, well, aware of the problem—the implication being that increased awareness yields an increased willingness to take appropriate measures to avert the misfortune. The Pink Ribbons, in especial, tend to be noticed, and some women have told me that they feel more likely to take proper precautions as a result of them. I can’t really discern anybody’s underlying motivation, but my suspicion is that the ribbons had little to do with anything.

In the first place, the ribbons, while a convenient visual shorthand, serve no actual function except to return attention to the issue. That is, these ribbons – red, yellow, pink, or otherwise – are only one (albeit very visual) piece of far huger information campaigns. The claim is that the ribbons encourage precautions or support, but I can only assume that they don’t. A ribbon cannot inform anybody about how to handle any of the various causes they support. If, for instance, a pink ribbon encourages women to examine themselves, it is only because they have received advice on how to undertake that examination from another source. The ribbon serves only as a reminder.

I decided to start asking around; surely I couldn’t be the only one who thought awareness ribbons were not only idiotic but counterproductive. I didn’t have to search far. I asked my stepfather Tony, in that off-hand, clever way that real journalists do when they don’t want to reveal their intentions or color an interviewee’s perception of the subject, what he thought of awareness ribbons.

Tony: I had one on my old car.
Me: Why’d you buy it?
Tony: I bought it because I support the troops.
Me: Were you trying to support a cause that would help the troops?
Tony: I don’t believe in that shit. I just bought it because it was there. That’s the problem with these things: they show your support, but it’s only skin deep.

Good stuff, but Tony’s a grumpy old man. I thought I’d go a little further, perhaps try to find some sympathy. Since we were on our way to help out my grandmother, Mrs. Cook, I thought that’d be a good start. I had but to say ‘awareness ribbons.’

Mrs. Cook: Aggravates me to death to see them all over the place! Pink, red, yellow, blue, green…I don’t know. It all started because of that song, ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round an Old Oak Tree.’*

And then, after a short lull in the admittedly casual conversation, and without any real provocation:

Mrs. Cook: What really gets me is when they say if you buy it they’ll donate 10¢ to research.†

Wow! Excellent stuff, but not exactly what I was looking for. I had assumed that, short of actually trying to support a charity, people bought these things because they felt they were ‘doing the right thing.’ You know—they buy a ribbon because it’s a good cause, and – who knows? – it may help out a charity. The forces at work here, I’ve long surmised, were insufficient education on the specifics of the subject, and sheer laziness.

* My dad never fails, at the first mention of ribbons, Tony Orlando, oak trees, or the color yellow, to regale us with the story of his attendance of a concert at which Mr. Orlando, having sold the rights to the lyrics, he couldn’t perform his own song. The poor bastard.
† This quote is win-win for me: it exactly reflects my suspicions (and shows I’m not the only one suspecting them), but, moreover, it gives me a chance to use the cent symbol, which I almost never do.


It is a particularly nasty byproduct of our cause-laden society. Wherever we go we are accosted from all sides by charitable causes of every variety. Most of the time we pick out one or two that really matter to us, but because we are so jaded by the sight of them, new ones generally fail to impress us. Worse, the overwhelming array of charities facing us subtly trains us to do the bare minimum most of the time—we have to spread our donations out amongst many worthy causes!

In a way, the barrage of pleas does get us to pitch in. Well, we buy a ribbon, because it’s cheap, available, and as far as we know, goes to a good cause. What happens then is that now we’ve shown our support. We did our good deed, and now we’re finished. If we have the opportunity to help out yet again, well, I suspect we may be less receptive to the idea, having already expended some resources on this one particular cause.

Think about it in monetary terms (everybody else does so in this game, after all). Everybody has a limited amount of resources to spend on everything there is to spend things on. Individuals do, churches do, corporations do, and nonprofit organizations do. You just can’t spend more than you have. So let’s assume Steve has €20.00 to spend on charity. He’s a churchgoing man, so €4.00 goes to there. At the behest of the cashier at his local grocer he donates €2.00 to something he’s not entirely clear on, but there’s a forgettable coupon in it for him so he does it so he doesn’t seem like a jerk for saying no. He goes to the nearby Buy-n-Large only to face an adorable set of siblings selling cookies—€6.00. Steve’s heard about this conflict that’s been going on, and he thinks the troops are really brave, so he buys a magnetic ribbon for them whilst waiting in queue. €1.00. You know what? Make it two: he’s got two cars.

Keeping up? Good, ’cause I haven’t been. My point is that now he’s only got a couple bucks left by the time he sees a stand selling care packages to send to the troops. €10.00. Uh oh, out of money—good thing he bought those ribbons, though; that should do the trick. He does support them, after all, right? He’s got the badges to prove it!

The same thing happens with things like Earth Day. So many times something that starts out with great intentions – and gets great results, even – runs out of steam and ultimately ends up diverting people’s attention from doing what would really help. And while we’re being distracted from important things, let’s just take a moment to consider this information taken from the American Heart Association:

In fact, coronary heart disease, which causes heart attack, is the single leading cause of death for American women. Many women believe that cancer is more of a threat, but they’re wrong. Nearly twice as many women in the United States die of heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases as from all forms of cancer, including breast cancer.

Narrow that down to breast cancer alone and the differences is far greater. Still, it pays to remember that mortalities due to breast cancer have, in Western nations, been steadily declining, no doubt largely because of successful awareness campaigns. It’s important to differentiate between an informational campaign, which can help people detect or avoid problems early, from awareness ribbons, which are essentially meaningless ribbons.

When the red AIDS ribbons kicked off the trend, education campaigns were already in full swing; the ribbons just let celebrities (and shortly thereafter, their fans) show how classy they were. Still, women are terrified of breast cancer (I would be too, no doubt, especially considering that it can affect men), but don’t know the first thing about heart disease. A powerful educational campaign might just put a dent in some of the lifestyle choices that are part of the problem.

Pink Ribbons Are All About the Green

While I was researching,‡ I came across an interesting term – pinkwashing – to describe the corporate misappropriation of a charitable symbol for nefarious capitalistic purposes. It turned out that I was dead on in my assumption that lots of people are sick of pink. Within the first minute on Google I found loads of articles decrying the practice. Breasts are big. Err, popular. What I mean is, they’re big business…§

Now my understanding is that pinkwashing applies specifically to products that use ingredients linked with breast cancer while purporting to support cancer research, but I think by extension it can be applied to any use of Pink whose primary goal is marketing rather than charity. If that’s the case, there’s an awful lot of pinkwashing going on. I’ve long tried to perceive the connection between, say, cancer and my morning Cheerios (satisfied that there are none, I continue to eat cheerios, blissfully unaware). It’s a marketing thing.

Given the choice between two identical products, their only difference being a pink ribbon, who would buy the unadorned one? Especially when somebody else is around to see them being uncharitable? Nobody. Moreover, when KFC, for instance, decides to sell Pink buckets, the choice is taken out of the consumer’s hands. I’m not suggesting it’s a bad thing that purchases support a charity by default – if they do – just that if a corporation is willing to donate that amount to a charitable foundation, they should be a little more transparent about it.

Again, it comes down to simple economics. No company can donate anything to anybody if they don’t make the bottom line—simple. My poor brother Nate was working at KFC when the ‘boob buckets’ happened,‖ and he thought KFC’s was a pretty strange model. He told me that while the majority of his customers didn’t show one preference or another, many asked specifically for the pink buckets, unaware that all buckets were participants in the program. Still, maybe that demonstrates that some people sought out the chicken who otherwise wouldn’t have. Good news for the charity; better news for KFC. Consumers should have given the money directly to an organization and then got a dinner they actually liked.

Still, KFC did end up donating something to the tune of $4.2 million, which, despite being less than half of their target donation, is still pretty impressive. I’m guessing, based on the general apathy of the customers, even if the honest supporters had chosen to donate directly instead of buying chicken, that amount would never have been raised without a corporate marketing scheme to back it up. Nevertheless, having set the record for the highest donation ever, KFC hasn’t offered any indication that it will repeat the program.

We need, as always, to avoid letting our good-natured skepticism degrade into cynicism. While there has certainly been a good amount of backlash against, say, Buckets for the Cure, there’s no use arguing with results. In fact, every negative reaction I read involves KFC’s notoriously unhealthy offerings and brings up the then-recent release of the fowl Double Down—truly an attack ad pullum. FiveThirtyEight did an interesting comparison of similar offerings’ health values. Whether the charitable gains are ill-gotten can be disputed, but they done been got.

‡ As always, by ‘researching,’ I mean cherry-picking the data for claims that would corroborate my conclusion.
§ Given that Pink ribbons seem to be the most widely-circulated, the majority of criticism seems to be leveled against them in particular, but the arguments hold true across the board. I use them as an example because I get to type ‘breasts’ over and over. Heh heh heh.
‖ Unfortunately for him, he was treated to an admittedly heated discourse on the subject—one of many predecessor conversations to this blog post.


It isn’t my intention to offend or upset anybody. My fiancée usually keeps my fervor in check; in my zeal to promote constant, unending analysis and free thought, I tend to get a little excited and often come off a little too strongly. This can be a sensitive subject, and I don’t want anybody to get the impression that this is a laughing matter to me, or that I’m completely callous. In fact, the only reason I do discuss things like this is because they are so important to me. I would hate to think of someone passing by a genuine opportunity to help another because they got hoodwinked into buying a trendy product that doesn’t really serve a purpose.

I believe in the old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and there is no doubt that awareness campaigns have drastically reduced mortality rates (at least in Western nations) of many particularly insidious ailments.

But I also believe that people should be allowed to grieve however they want, or celebrate however they want, or struggle however they want. If ribbons are their way of showing that they’re proud and supportive and full of encouragement, as yellow ribbons often are, then they should do it proudly! But let’s cut the crap and call them support ribbons and let families who are struggling support each other in their own ways, without turning it into a cheap marketing ploy. And by cheap I mean very costly.

Today’s Environmentalist

Yesterday on Twitter, Alexandra Cousteau of Blue Legacy challenged the public to update the definition of ‘environmentalism’:

What does it mean to be an environmentalist today? We need some re-definition! Thoughts anyone?

That got me thinking, and I’d say it is time for some redefining. It’s never been easier to call oneself an environmentalist, so let’s take a moment to think about what we’re saying.

© 2010 Justin Gifford

You’d think, from the amount of press that things like the BP oil spill are rare occurrences or that such things have only happened relatively recently. You’d be wrong. Which is to say, environmental disasters, catastrophes, and complications happen all the time, and it’s horrifying. We are, however, now more aware of them, both because we have a greater historical perspective on past events and because we have a greater global perspective on current events happening in somebody else’s backyard. A cynic might go so far as to say that it’s trendy to be aware of such things, the way it’s trendy to discuss fiscal policy at cocktail parties. Not that these things are any less urgent or real; just that it is trendy to have an opinion on them.

Unfortunately, the side-effect of this is that having a ready-made opinion stifles creative thought. When I say ‘creative,’ I don’t mean that in the artsy sense of creating murals or paintings; I mean it in the sense of creating something else entirely—solutions.* It isn’t enough any more to want to pitch in.

Whenever I see questions like Ms. Cousteau’s, I like to peek at the responses it garners, when they are readily available and I don’t have to do any actual investigating. The answers tend to range from the clever:

“For me, being an environmentalist today means doing work through a lens† of mindfulness and compassion.”

to the heady:

“There is no other way of being. One day this word won’t mean anything because we will all be. It’ll be embedded in our values.”

to the inane:

“tough it’s been watered down”

Since the smarter answers are pretty self-explanatory, I’ll skip right to the dessert.

Again, I don’t want to minimize the efforts of real environmentalists, which are many and varied, nor of concerned citizens who genuinely do what they can. My problem is rather the prepackaged opinions that get inhibit real progress. Nor would I suggest that this is limited to the environmental sciences, because it certainly isn’t. But in the spirit of the original question, that is how I must frame my answer.

* A licensed chemist is encouraged to create precipitates as well.
† I’m a photographer; I can’t help picking out the comment that makes a lens reference!

Prepackaged Solutions

One of the things I see all the time is the all-too-common belief in the myth of ‘common sense.’ That is, environmentalists believe that their weapon in the fight to save the world is their common sense. Unfortunately, those who would deny environmental problems like climate change area also relying on common sense (at least, those innocents who have been misled through no fault of their own to believe it). As far as either group can tell, their opponents are either crazy or have a hidden agenda. The problem is not that one group is crazy, but that ‘common sense’ doesn’t clearly exist. It all depends on the company you keep. Anthropologists are familiar with this phenomenon on the largest and the smallest scales and, accordingly, avoid judging cultures on any terms but the culture’s own.

The Liberal vs. Conservative fight is a well-known caricature of today’s politics,‡ but I think anybody would be hard-pressed to demonstrate that bickering between two political groups is a recent phenomenon! Nevertheless, it has important implications. Both groups will remain entrenched in their opinions for as long as it takes to accomplish their goals—that much should be apparent. The only appropriate recourse, then, is not to continue arguing, but to make a real effort to understand the goals of the people whose ideals are contrary to our own, and whose ideas we would change. More on this later.

My point is not who is right and who is crazy. Rather, I wish to illustrate the pitfall that pervades any discussion: the prepackaged opinion. When we recite fact after fact that we have known since grade school to be true, we are not expressing our own opinions, but the opinions of those who taught us. We take these to be incontrovertible and obvious and, because they are all we have ever known, it never occurs to us to doubt them.

Unfortunately, this attitude doesn’t actually fix anything; in fact, it usually does the opposite. Our unthinking repetition of mantras like Reduce! Reuse! Recycle! can actually be counterproductive—they become so familiar to us that we stop giving them any real consideration. Further, to continue discussing the Three Rs, people tend to get hung up on Recycling, because it’s easy and cheap—at least for consumers. If nothing else, consumers get to feel a nice pat on the back when they do it.

And that’s the thing—most armchair environmentalists do it because, frankly, we feel pretty nice for contributing to a cause greater than ourselves. We are often reminded that such a cause is environmentalism. But the flip side to that feeling of self-content is that it can prevent us from doing more. I have had many discussions with a friend of mine about how awareness ribbons seem to do little more raise awareness—a limited resource. By buying a cheap trinket for a few cents, I can absolve myself from doing anything further if it inconveniences me, which it often does.

Many ‘green’ solutions seem to be the same way. If I use more efficient light bulbs (cost-effective), why should I buy a more efficient car (inconvenient)?

‡ And if politics are a caricature of society, that makes it a caricaturecature!

Single-Serving Environmentalism

It isn’t enough to do the bare minimum. As environmentalists, our battle is not with ignorance but with apathy. An apathy that has occurred not despite our best efforts but because of them. Sadly, in their fervor to spread enthusiasm for the preservation of the environment, environmentalists have over-saturated the media, leaving the public with little inclination to care.

Take the case of Earth Day. Earth Day, at its heart, is an extraordinary idea. It was designed to raise awareness in a culture that really was sheltered from the realities of environmental destruction, and to spur the world into action. It did. But after 40 years, it’s lost some steam. Earth Day is a time, for the citizen of average concern, to rally together and ‘pitch in.’ While the camaraderie fosters a sense of accomplishment, instead of the day highlighting the dire need to create more powerful solutions, it highlights cutesy green caricatures§ of environmentalism.

The public can only sustain alarmism for so long until attention wanes—this happens all the time. Worse, while the incentive to Pitch In exists for the day, it seldom extends longer than a week at best. This seems to be because, again, we as a society absolve ourselves from action when we do the bare minimum. In effect, we only need to be environmentalists once a year.‖

This kind of environmental minimalismis especially egregious when it comes to disasters. Disasters – natural or man-made – happen. It’s tragic when they do, but they happen. Lately we have seen that in the Gulf of Mexico. But a side effect is that we are so used to tragedies happening that we are practically on a schedule for donations. We contribute to the cause of the moment, and seldom otherwise. We do not donate regularly, or, in general, to less urgent causes. The reasons for this are several, but that is for another column.

What it comes down to is that, sadly, we are so used to urgency that we seldom respond without it. All of this is to say that we want simple, convenient, and relevant solutions. I do not mean this to sound like criticism; it is only an observation, and it seems to be true in all spheres. Not everybody has the inclination, and few the time, to be a full-steam environmentalist. It’s hard work, and it takes a lot of specialized skills and a critical mindset. No-one can accuse the average green thumb for lacking effort.

However, while they may be excused for not embracing every aspect of environmentalism, there is another pitfall that commonly traps even the best-intentioned shoppers (insidiously, it traps them all the more). That pitfall is known as greenwashing. In our zeal to be environmentally aware, we have created an atmosphere in which it is trendy (i.e. profitable) to be Green.¶ Whenever there is a profitable atmosphere there is a very real potential for fraud. This is worse than benign dishonesty. It causes consumers, who are already in the market for convenient solutions, to divert their money from genuinely helpful products to those that are far less so.

TerraChoice has compiled a thorough list – The Seven Sins of Greenwashing – of common untruths as well as ways to spot them. In an effort to avoid simply throwing blame, and to make consumers accountable, TerraChoice has elected not to name particular brands or companies—a tactic that promotes open-minded thinking and avoids pre-packaged-opinion-mongering.

Students learning to test water.
© 2010 Justin Gifford

This today is the charge of the environmentalist. We have seen how much progress can be made by an individual, but we must now shift our focus to our society. We must embrace an attitude of healthy skepticism.

Healthy skepticism is not to be confused with pseudoskepticism or environmental denialism. These obfuscations serve no socially-valid purpose and generally only benefit a small interest group, if anybody at all. Good skepticism, on the other hand, does not doubt, but it questions. It questions the validity of claims not to suppress them but to make them more accurate. To make them better.

Healthy skepticism does not only question the claims of an opponent, but also its own. When most people hear a statistic that sounds fishy to them, their first instinct is to doubt it. It’s a good start, but only if that initial doubt does not predispose you to disbelief when you find satisfactory evidence. Likewise, most people, on hearing a statistic that confirms what they suspected, are unlikely to doubt it and probably won’t bother checking another source to determine its veracity.

This is a supremely-important skill not just in environmentalism but in all disciplines. Nevertheless, it is all too easy to take a columnist’s word for it, for instance, trusting that not only do they know what they are talking about, but also that they have no particular agenda.

§ I keep using this word! I don’t think it means what I think it means…
‖ Twice if you also count Arbor Day. Thrice if you think Labor Day is Arbor Day.
¶ We have also preserved an atmosphere in which ozone layers exist.

Don’t Be Evil

A useful starting point, I think, may be to examine your motives for environmentally involved. Or for not being involved more. Sometimes it’s cheaper to buy Green (and this is a major selling point), but often companies charge a premium for Green products.** Buying Green is never better than using less. Reduce, man.

But that raises a question of ethics. The pairing of environmentalism with ethics has a long and respectable pedigree, and with good reason. The very idea of environmental stewardship is based on the idea that it is the responsibility of those who benefit from resources (i.e. the Earth) to are for them (it). Many would say it is unethical to waste fossil fuels, or ruin the air, or use up all the rocks. Whether it is or isn’t is a debate for another time, but the sentiment is there and the implications are dire.

So it is necessary to think not of being Green (or buying Green)†† but of being ethical across the board. Sometimes thinking laterally is necessary. Vegetarians, frankly, have a smaller environmental impact than their omnivorous brethren. I can’t advocate becoming a vegetarian, since I am not one myself, but a consumer can still make huge differences by shopping ethically and making a commitment to learn more about their food. While the Vegan horror stories of slaughterhouses haven’t dissuaded me from meat entirely, they have certainly caused me to cut way back; I now shop only ethically-produced food and, as an indirect consequence, I only eat meat a couple times each month. Such awareness has made me feel healthier and better about eating the food I do eat.

To mention one more example that is particularly relevant, coffee is a hugely destructive industry. But true aficionados demonstrate their love of it by buying Fair Trade and shade-grown coffees—both ethically sustainable. It is time to start thinking of new ways to be involved; you may do more good by eating at McDonald’s less than by buying Green window cleaners.

Environmentalism today means rethinking the concept of ‘stewardship.’ We must be stewards not just of the environment, but of our attitudes. Environmentalists must be responsible for seeing through false claims, but also for actively correcting them. It has never been easier to be environmentally active, and the boundaries dividing those who ‘are’ environmentalists and those who ‘aren’t’ have never been hazier. Professional environmentalists know their job, and they’re out there doing it every day. It’s our job, those of us who care but aren’t specialists, to help them—and to thank them for their efforts.‡‡

** A major manufacturer of resealable plastic sandwich bags, for instance, responded to the recession by offering new, Green bags. They used less plastic. They say ‘less plastic,’ I hear ‘more fragile.’
†† My problem is not having enough Green to spend!
‡‡ Mowing the lawn is hard enough; I applaud those who do actual work outdoors!

Update – 7 October

GOOD just posted a link to an FTC proposal for new guidelines that would govern any product’s claims regarding environmental impact. Sweet.

My Conversation with Penn Jillette

Yesterday, on September 11, I had a nice conversation with Penn Jillette. Well, considering that it was on Twitter, it was more like I said something and then he said something, and it all happened in 149 characters. Here’s how it went:

Me: I thought you were smarter than that—seriously, that graphic is just stupid.
Penn: It’s Richard Dawkins, and I’m not smarter than him. I’m not smart at all.

The stupid image to which I was referring was a backlit photo of the Twin Towers with an enormous caption—IMAGINE NO RELIGION. Provocative, eh? Obviously the creator of the graphic has thrown subtlety to the wind with this one (I’ve seen much more tasteful renditions of the sentiment). Mr. Jillette attributed something thereabouts to Richard Dawkins; the tagline is something of a motto for Mr. Dawkins, to be sure, but I suspect from the overall quality of the image that he was not the original creator.

One thing I love about Penn is his honest humility; it doesn’t come off as affectation. I suspect that when people post images like that, it is generally to provoke a reaction, and many revel in it. Penn, on the other hand, was both prompt and courteous in response to my comment—which could easily have been construed as antagonistic or angry. And that is smart. See, I’ve come to view Penn as the kind of guy who has a pretty damn strong opinion about things, but who will also do whatever it takes to spread good information.

Which is why I was so surprised at the fact that he forwarded that image; that image is not good information. It isn’t good anything.

Now, it’s no secret that I’m highly irreligious. I just don’t see anything in religion that I can’t get anywhere else. All the best things religion has to offer (and there are a lot) have analogues you can find in any community. Unfortunately, so do all the worst things religion has to offer (again, there are a lot). But I am not anti-religious. Not in the way Richard Dawkins is. Nor am I an atheist.

Because atheism takes the same kind of faith as any other religion, except instead of knowing in your heart that there is a god, you’re knowing in your heart that there isn’t. Look, maybe Richard Dawkins knows something I don’t (in fact, I’m sure he knows several things I don’t), but I’m just not convinced. Unfortunately all Dawkins’ style of preaching does is, well, preaching to the choir. His openly hostile attitude isn’t going to convert anybody; it’ll just dig them deeper into their faith to shield themselves against the heathen onslaught.

I love P&T: Bullshit! I love it because it’s hilarious and entertaining, and because it’s a smug, pat-yourself-on-the-back kind of good time. But I mostly love it because I generally agree with their conclusions (although after watching the Death Penalty episode I found myself shifting from indifference to criticizing it as well). It is not something I would show to someone whose opinion I would like to change, or even to someone I’d like to educate. It’s amusing to those who already have those opinions, but pretty much useless to those who don’t. In fact, Penn’s outrageously vulgar language, while hilarious, is more likely to fortify opinions that people who hold such beliefs are necessarily immature and uneducated. That’s just how it is.

And that’s how I feel about Dawkins’ work. Of course, I haven’t read everything he’s done, but I think his stance is pretty clear. And unfortunately, while so many of his points are valid, enlightened, and highly relevant to today’s culture, they are presented in such a way as to dissuade the exact people who need to hear them from paying any attention! Richard Dawkins does for atheists what every pastor does for churchgoers Sunday mornings: he reaffirms their beliefs while doing absolutely nothing to change the beliefs of others. He perpetuates the insular culture of the atheist by alienating the very people we should be welcoming with open arms.

Which brings me to that image. The suggestion that the 2001 attacks were fueled by religion is embarrassingly blatant, and unfortunately is also completely misleading. It is clearly an image meant to rile the passions of those who wish to see a world without religion while simultaneously rankling those who claim “But it isn’t my religion!”

I did imagine “no religion.” I saw a world that lacked a lot of deplorable things, but it didn’t lack violence. I have absolutely no doubt that the anti-American sentiments harbored by the terrorists responsible for the attacks would have bred a similar attack anyway even if their motivations were purely political. Tragic, yes, and in this case they were a grotesque distortion of religion (which, per se, is not evil or destructive).

But for one day, when thousands are grieving such a recent tragedy, can we please not perpetuate hatred? Mr. Jillette’s “Penn Point” comments on his discussion with the mother of an injured cheerleader were heartfelt and touching, and despite his rough demeanor on Bullshit! he obviously has a sensitive side.

I just wish he had been a little more sensitive yesterday.

By way of disclosure, I was not personally affected by the attacks. I didn’t know anybody involved—hell, I don’t even know anybody who knows anybody who was affected. So I’m not really writing out of any personal feelings on the subject. Maybe I’d be more credible if I were, but maybe not. Further, I’m not writing out of any desire to defend religion. Sure, I see some good in it, but largely I just see it as superfluous at best, and backward at worst.

My fiancée’s family is pretty religious, and I momentarily resented her father’s kindly hesitation at offering her hand due to my lack of Christian ideals. Still, I don’t do them the injustice of hiding my beliefs or pretending to adopt their own, because I demand that they respect me on my terms, not theirs. At the same time, in return for their indulgence, I choose to approach their beliefs with kindness and understanding, and I at least spare them my cynicism. I mean skepticism.

That’s what I love about skeptics, or at least my ideal of skeptics. We don’t resort to name-calling and cheap emotional ploys. We are above all loving and accepting of everybody whose intentions are good, even if their practices are not. We are shepherds of the intellect. Our flock is wayward, but we don’t abandon them in disgust, we guide them as far as we have to until they can guide themselves.

Update – 17 September

Mr. Jillette was patient enough to read through my rambling, and responded quite cordially:

‘thanks for your kind words. Atheism doesn’t require “faith” except in the loosest sense. Just waiting for evidence.’

I can see his point. Unfortunately, it’s a losing battle. God bless him for fighting it, though. Well, somebody ought to bless him, if there’s no god to do it.

An Awful Way to Be

Stop being a snob.

Oh, you’re not? I must have mistaken you for someone else. I guess we’re finished!

Just kidding; I don’t believe you.

The fact is, almost everybody is a snob, and of the few people I’ve ever met who genuinely weren’t snobs, only a handful are people you should emulate (some unfortunate souls are so blissfully unaware of any lifestyle but their own that they are unable to conceive of preferences incongruent with their own, never mind disparage them). Yes, no matter how awesome you are – and often, I find, the more Awesome you are – you may be prone to some snobbery.

And it is definitely not Awesome.

I am delighted and fortunate to have a girlfriend who vehemently… er… strongly disagrees with me on many points very close to my heart. While I’m pretty sure she’s wrong (bless her), her earnestness and good-hearted intentions keep my skepticism and my ego in check.

You see, I have come to the understanding that when you are confronted with someone whose opinion differs egregiously from your own learned and carefully-crafted opinion, you mustn’t treat the individual as though he is beneath you for his lack of worldly understanding. You must treat it as a chance to teach him, and be thankful that you’ve met someone who even *has* an opinion about something close to your heart. In Today’s Jaded Society, it sometimes seems unlikely to find an individual who shares your enthusiasm for a subject, no matter how misguided his (or your) opinions. The sharing of good knowledge is paramount, and far more rewarding, in the end, than smugly patting yourself on the back and being amazed by how little everybody else knows.

I am known (by those who know me) for my – shall we say – strong opinions, and the voracity with which I – shall we say – discuss them. While all of my – shall we say – barely-coherent rants are well founded and rational (naturally), I can see how they might come off as a bit strong for some people’s tastes. In the end, such rants aren’t for anybody’s benefit but my own, and those who are amused by the ease with which my ire is provoked, but they don’t actually help anything or transmit knowledge.

But intellectual snobbery is only one of a variety of forms this subversive soul-stealer can take, and none of us is immune. In fact, the more immune we think we are, the more likely we are to fall into its heinous clutches. Keep an open mind, and try out this reality check: when you disagree with someone, do you find yourself feeling that your opinion is better informed, or just that it’s better? If it’s the latter (or you don’t think there’s a difference), you may be in danger of being a snob.

And that is not Awesome.

In other words, don’t be hatin’ man. Wikipedia, man.