Archive for the ‘celebration/inspiration’ Category

Education hero: Laci Green


Most of you have probably already heard of Laci Green, prolific YouTuber on various topics relating to sexuality and feminism.

For anyone out there who is even more out of touch than me, let me introduce you to a brilliant, articulate, and prolific mind that, if we are lucky, will help lift our culture into a more sane and happy future.

Here are a couple of highlights from what I’ve seen so far, that might make good starting points for you who are about to become her fans:

A video about “the sex talk” (including why it shouldn’t be the sex talk). Judging by the subjective time it has taken my daughter to reach age six, I anticipate her graduating high school and moving out in about three days. I need to start considering how to tackle the topic of sexuality with her. Laci’s video hits all of the high points, without being all “Here is the script you must follow”.

Feminism. I know that I fall down on this. I’m a man, and I get so many passes and advantages that women don’t get. I’m lucky enough to have a wife who gently points it out to me when I’m being a privileged ass, and I think I’m improving. Slowly. But it still amazes me that there are people who don’t think gender inequality is a problem. Are you one of those people? Maybe you should watch this video, and be prepared to feel humbled. Are you not one of those people? Then you should watch this video too, and get ready to cheer.

She also has frank and general-audience-appropriate discussions of a wide variety of topics. I’m learning stuff from her that I had wondered about but couldn’t bring myself to ask. And through it all is a very clear message: it’s okay to be who you are, how you are. You deserve respect, and you owe other people respect.

She’s a great role model – not only for women, but for anyone who values openness and respect. She’s also a lot of fun.

She’s on Twitter (@gogreen18), Facebook, and Tumblr, as well as on YouTube.

If you have a particular favorite among her videos, link to it in the comments below. Or offer your own suggestion about a good public figure for communicating positive messages about sexuality and feminism.

Sometimes it’s worth getting upset


I work, on this blog, to speak both to those who already agree with me (whether they call themselves humanists, atheists, freethinkers, agnostics, brights, something else, or take on no particular label at all), and to those who do not (religious, post-religious, spiritual-but-not-religious, etc).

I strive to live up to the name I took for the blog – a standard that I think is worth reaching for: to be friendly. To avoid unnecessary conflict. To speak in a way that people remain willing to listen.

And yet …

And yet, I really enjoy a good zinger. I love listening to someone take down a stupid argument with all the acidic vitriol or dismissive contempt that it deserves. It appeals to something base and undeniable in me.

And it’s not a completely bad thing – not some dirty pleasure. Motivating me in my friendly approach is the same zeal for connection, for truth, and for making the world a better place as motivates PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, and a hundred other, louder voices. The same values motivate me as motivated Christopher Hitchens.

And so I commend to you, my fellow humanists (etc), these two compilations of Hitchens’ sharp and uncompromising style and wit in action. If you are religious and find that Hitchens’ tone puts you off, feel free to avoid these. Or, if you’re feeling bold and open, watch them anyway and try to see what motivates him to say the things he says, and to say them in that way.

Part 1:

Part 2:

[Edit: There’s a new one! Enjoy …]

Part 3:

[Edit: And more …]

Part 4:


Brian and Who?


Oh, the anticipation! It’s Doctor Who Day (or some such). Matthew Cobb has shared this set of vids. I’m exercising enormous self-control by holding off watching the last one until the other Who-nut in the house is out of a (cruel, evil, inhumane) work meeting online (on a Saturday!). But you – you go watch now, as soon as you can. Here, let me embed it …

Enjoy, all you folks down in Who-ville.

Because science *is* for people …


One of the great tragedies of modern society is the general perception of science as boring, difficult, and not relevant to everyday life. To me, science has always been the best amplifier of wonder that humans have come up with.

Wonder pours in through the senses from a very early age. But, for reasons I don’t entirely understand, people seem to think that teaching kids about science means getting them to memorize facts. No. Science is about questioning, about looking fearlessly and with delight at how the world works, in all its crazy, messy complexity.

Science doesn’t answer all of our important social questions, but it does inform them. It helps us think about them more clearly.

Anyway, this post isn’t meant to be cheerleading for science. It’s meant to be cheerleading for a podcast I’ve been listening to. Until recently, it was called “Skeptically Speaking” – a perfectly reasonable name, that captured some of the spirit of the thing. (My only quibble with the name was that I’d occasionally confuse it with Rationally Speaking, another excellent podcast with a very different focus and flavour.) I enjoyed the podcast. Then I learned that it was produced out of my new home city, Edmonton, and I enjoyed it a little more. I even got to see two of the hosts, Desiree Schell (@desireeschell) and Rachelle Saunders (@afterthree), at this year’s Logicon.

What’s so great about this podcast? Well, it’s produced and hosted by science fans with great production and communication skills.

And that’s delightful to see in a science podcast.

They take a skeptical look – balancing reports where there is a legitimate scientific debate, and not giving airtime to fringe, unscientific positions.

And that’s refreshing to see in a science reporting by non-scientists.

And … well … they’re fun. Friendly. They seem to get science in the same way I do. They get that it’s hard work to do it right, and that it’s worth the work because we get to learn stuff. We get to see the world with new eyes. And along the way, we may learn things that help us better navigate this crazy, tangled, confusing life of ours.

Anyway, that’s the show. But it isn’t called Skeptically Speaking any longer. Now it’s called …

(drum roll)

Science for the People

They have a snazzy new website, and two episodes now under their new name – one exploring the reason for the name change (and some inspiring science-communication, public-engagement stuff), and one on food sustainability. Here’s a bit of what they say about themselves on the website:

“We explore the connections between science, popular culture, history, and public policy, to help listeners understand the evidence and arguments behind what’s in the news and on the shelves.”

Go. Listen. Enjoy. Wonder.

Merry Christmas


I haven’t blogged much lately. I suppose I could list excuses – working on my career, settling in to a new city, spending time with the kids.

But I’ll just sum them up with a little spin, and say that I’ve been gathering material to work into blog posts when I get back into it.

Meantime, because it is the season and I’m once again in a northerly enough latitude to seriously suffer from shortened daylight at this end of the Earth’s orbit, I thought I’d post a video of my current favorite Christmas song. Enjoy the song, and more importantly enjoy the people around you over the solstice season.

Enjoying the present


A dear niece told me the other day that she missed my blogging.

I miss it too. Perhaps some time soon I will return to it – I have some ideas that I would love to share with you all.

For now, let me encourage you to enjoy the world outside your computer screen. The Internet – and this blog in particular – will still be here when you need to return. To quote a new favorite author of mine,

Enjoy the present, the “now” that partakes of eternity. (Lois McMaster Bujold, Memory)

Happy Southern Solstice!


For everyone more than 23.4 degrees south of the equator, happy longest day of the year!  For everyone more than 23.4 degrees north of the equator, happy shortest day of the year!  For everyone else … hmm, you know, I’ve never actually learned how the seasons work in that zone of maximum insolation around our planet’s belly.  Well, maybe you can enjoy the fact that you don’t have several inches of snow (as we do here in Boston).  Or the fact that you actually have days of relatively constant length.

Anyway, have a great solstice everyone – the cause of the season.

Also, don’t forget to celebrate Newton’s birthday on Saturday.  Reason in the season.

(I’m not blogging the Cosmic Advent this year, but you are free to follow it yourself on my Google Cosmic Calendar.)

What are the odds?


I have just learned that tomorrow, the 20th of October 2010, is the first ever World Statistics Day – officially designated by the UN!

As a scientist, I directly use statistics every day, analysing and reporting results of experiments, and reading and evaluating the research of others.  As a regular person, I indirectly use statistics every day.

Some are statistics that I have gathered, consciously or unconsciously.  (When is the bus due?  How likely am I to catch it if I wait another 5 minutes?)

Some are statistics that I’ve been explicitly exposed to – in advertisements, media reports, or conversations with people I know.  (Will dressing like this help me get the job?  Will this candidate’s policies really improve the economy?  Will this candidate really implement these policies?  How bad is my lack of regular exercise for my long-term health?)

Responsible use of statistics is one of the greatest boons to modern science – from the development and evaluation of medical innovations (yay, Florence Nightingale!) to the examination of global climate (it’s changing).

Irresponsible use of statistics is an increasing threat.  From frauds misusing the numbers to promote quack alternatives to medicine, to news outlets misrepresenting results for the sake of a headline, to politicians and industry executives lying with a veneer of scientific credibility.

Without (responsible) statistics, we would be at the mercy of our appallingly bias-laden intuitions.  (Be honest, did you get the Monty Hall problem right when you first came across it?)  Without a basic understanding of statistics, we are at the mercy of people who will distort the data to try to convince us of anything.

A tiny side-note here:  despite the popular aphorism, it is not true that you can prove anything you want with statistics.  You can claim anything you want.  If your audience is ignorant enough you might get away with it.  But only by lying and distorting.  Statistics don’t lie to people; people lie to people (and often to themselves.) If you understand statistics – and I mean the basic concepts, not the fancy mathematical equations – then it is much harder for someone to lie to you with statistics.

Okay, I’d love to go on at greater length.  But I have some data to analyze.

In celebration, here are some things to check out.  Enjoy!

  • R, the best way to do statistics.  It’s free and it’s friendly.  It’s used in beginners courses, and it’s used by professional statisticians.  Give it a try.  You know you want to!
  • Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science blog and book, with loads of tips about what to look out for in popular portrayals of science and statistics.  (That book would serve as a good introduction to statistical thinking, among other things.)
  • Hans Rosling’s presentation of beautiful statistics (YouTube) – proving that stats don’t have to be boring and opaque.



I love the way some people employ their creativity.  Enjoy!

This video comes via Erich Vieth from Dangerous Intersection.

Cosmic birthday: HE 1523-0901


I would like to make a confession.  I am beginning to feel some of the symptoms of age.  Not old age, so much.  Just age.  Exercise is becoming something I need to consciously undertake, no longer something that simply happens among all the stuff I do in the week.  Lifting my daughter is no longer as effortless as it was a year ago.  (Okay, so that’s more a sign of her age than mine.)  Sleep is becoming a welcome goal at the end of the day, instead of an unwelcome necessity getting in the way of things I’d rather be doing.

But I have the perfect way to avoid falling into worry about my aging:  I think about HE 1523-0901. Here’s a picture of her with a few of her sisters:

Let's call her "Nan"

Yes, HE 1523-0901 is a star.  But not just any star.  She is the oldest observed object in the Milky Way.  Astronomers have estimated her age at 13.2 billion years (though, being a lady, she’s not acknowledging the estimate).  On the Cosmic Calendar, that’s today, the 14th of January.  Happy birthday, HE 1523-0901!

Keep in mind, when considering her age (born only 500 million years after the Big Bang), that the Milky Way itself is not thought to have come together in the form we now know until (at the earliest) 10.1 billion years ago – by which time HE 1523-0901 was already over three billion years old.

She is a slim star, weighing in at (forgive me, my lady) about 0.8 times the mass of our own sun.  She is a red giant, and is found about 7500 light years away in the direction of Libra.  She is apparently difficult to find from as far north as I am, so I will have to content myself with images like the above one, taken by the professional paparazzi to the stars.

I invite you to look up more about this lovely Grand Dame of our galactic family.  It certainly helps me to put my aging worries in perspective.

Finally, a note to any astronomers reading this:  she needs a better name!  I vote we call her “Nan”, after my granny.  Before you think that this is a rather backhanded way to honour my maternal forbear, let me explain.  My granny is now … well, somewhat less than 13.2 billion years old, but old enough to have three great-grandchildren.  She can still out-walk folks my age when she goes hiking around the Essex countryside.  So, just as Granny doesn’t seem to let the years touch her, I propose we honour our long-lasting stellar neighbour.  May she live another 13.2 billion years!

Photo credit:

Photo of HE 1523-0901 (Nan) from the gallery of Anthony Ayiomamitis.  (Copyrighted but assuming fair use.  Go check out his collection of amazing and educational astronomical photos!)

Redundancy note:

I’ve mentioned HE 1523-0901 before, but that’s the beauty of birthdays:  you can celebrate them anew each year.