Strange Loops - Blog Archive: August 2006
Strange Loops Journal Archive: August 2006

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Cover your genitals with a towel
August 20, 2006
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Added a new humor section to the creative writing page: Funny Signs. It will likely be updated intermittently as I find new signs. Also, some random short-shorts have been added to the Flash Humor page.
Is Your Personality Influenced by Parasites?
August 18, 2006
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In a short article here, Carl Zimmer writes about Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that infects billions of humans (maybe you?). This parasite has been correlated with particular personality traits like self-doubt, insecurity, etc. and the study Zimmer describes looks at how infection patterns of this parasite might have a real influence on the culture in a particular country.

Mere microscopic organisms influencing the evolution of human culture. Interesting thought. And if parasites influencing their hosts' minds sounds far-fetched, check out another creature Zimmer writes about: Ampulex compressa. This mind-controlling wasp pokes open the skull of a cockroach host, sticks its legs down into the brain and basically remote-controls the cockroach to make it walk back to the wasp's home and plop down to allow the wasp's eggs to hatch out of it. "The wasp takes hold of one of the roach's antennae and leads it--in the words of Israeli scientists who study Ampulex--like a dog on a leash." Nifty little adaptation these wasp parasites have developed.

Are we too, in some more subtle sense, being led around by parasites infecting us that we don't even know about? Could be.

Which just goes to show, once again, how complex the causal chain is that leads up to the human mind, how many tiny factors are involved in how we perceive, analyze and respond to our environmental stimuli (i.e. make choices). Nothing's as simple as it first seems, even the basics. Not to downplay our power of choice -- just worth better understanding its intricacies and what affects it.

Liquid = Evil
August 18, 2006
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The U.S. government has declared an entire state of matter to be a threat to our security (Threat Level raised to Red: Severely Idiotic).

After the recent 'liquid plot' episode, the U.S. has been freaking out over liquids and gels. Of course, they have played down the fact that the big plot wasn't ever much of a real danger anyway. The British government had been following the cell for over a year, watching them. They'd been found through good old fashioned detective work, not pointless security measures designed to cause/allay fear in the masses. They didn't have plane tickets or working explosives. The Brits didn't think they even needed to be arrested yet. [One example source: MSNBC]

But of course our government and media have both jumped on the case, and the government has resorted to rather half-assed 'security measures'. No more liquids or gels on planes, because they might use liquids or gels in their plots. So if you wear Dr. Scholl's shoe insoles, you are a danger ("Are you gellin'? Then you must be a felon.").

Of course, the airport personnel now take everyone's liquids and dump them into a vat before letting them through security. Which seems real wise when you realize that the type of liquid explosive they worry about terrorists using works by combining two harmless-alone liquids that become volatile together (say, by dumping them haphazardly in a big vat). So basically we're trying to help them blow up an airport instead of an airplane. Okay.

The often-insightful Schneier comments on the whole debacle here, reminding us of the bigger picture of security. Banning liquids and gels is not going to add protection. And I doubt it really makes people feel safer, though I know that is what it is designed to do. But I think the whole theater of the event -- the new threat, the security patch put over it, the wonder what will come next -- functions to (I almost want to write "is designed to") elicit not panic (which is short-term and goes away with time) but a more subtle long-standing apprehension and worry.

This latter effect can, by design or accident, be played upon by those with political motives (with the best intentions), who work to limit freedoms and reshape our country into a automated-Big-Brother surveillance society where personal liberties are an allowance, not a guarantee. Obviously they frame it as "protecting freedom" even when it has the opposite effect, but it's the actual long-run effect that worries me. At any rate, I think maybe the vague fear and apprehension we're installing in ourselves is just what the terrorists want. As usual, Wondermark is on the mark.

Links to Other Sites
August 12, 2006
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For those who didn't notice, I updated the Blogs of Interest list along the right side, removing a few inactive ones and adding some really great ones I've found recently. Specifically, I've found some good science-oriented blogs that have good, interesting stories. Check them out.

Marriage and Sex
August 12, 2006
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Recently, the highest courts in New York and Washington upheld state laws that allow marriage only between a man and woman. Nebraska and Georgia recently reinstated such laws, as well. The rulings in NY and WA claim that the state has a "legitimate" and "compelling" interest in promoting procreation by only allowing heterosexuals to marry. They found that heterosexuals have a fundamental right to marriage, but that homosexuals do not.

And we are not just talking terminology here between calling something marriage and calling it a civil union. Actual, concrete rights are being denied, including things like health benefits, insurance, taxes and housing rights. Amendments adopted by 12 states (Arkansas, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah) ban state or local governments from creating civil unions or partnership benefits similar to marriage. Not only can gays not marry, they can't get the benefits married straight people do no matter what you label it.

The recent rulings seem to be based almost solely on the fact that heterosexual marriage is for procreation, and since gays can't procreate, they have no need to marry. Of course, this completely ignores the fact that a lot of straight people marry not just to have kids -- they do it to make a lifetime partnership commitment, they do it for religious reasons, they do it to save on taxes and payments and get insurance and health benefits that are based on married status, and for many other reasons.

If marriage was only allowed for reproduction, then heterosexual couples who don't plan to have kids, who are sterile, who are too old for children, or celibate or whatever -- these people should not be allowed to marry. But the rulings uphold their right as heterosexuals to marry even though marriage is allegedly for procreation only. Heterosexuals get this exception as a benefit of the doubt; but no such luck for people who love someone of the same sex and want to dedicate themselves to that person for the rest of their lives. Gay couples who adopt children don't even get the exception that childless heterosexual couples do, despite them actually needing the official benefits of marriage for the same reasons that heterosexual couples supposedly do: to better be able to raise and support their child.

We're talking here about idiotic denial of basic civil rights because of backwards, outmoded belief systems or general 'ickiness' feelings surrounding homosexuality. Two men kissing, two women having sex, a gay couple of 25 years wanting to make their life commitment official -- these things don't hurt anyone. Love is love, and it is just as genuine and real and amazing when it's between two people of the same sex as any other time. How anyone could think that love is harmful to the state's interests boggles my mind.

When we start letting government dictate who is or is not allowed to marry based on absurd reasoning like that found in recent government decisions, we risk allowing the government to dictate further restrictions. Soon Deaf people won't be allowed to marry -- after all, they are more likely to have hearing-impaired offspring, and since many people see deafness as a disability or negative medical condition, they won't allow couples to irresponsibly bring disabled children into this world. Maybe couples will have to go through genetic testing and if both parents have a recessive gene for some 'negative' trait, they won't be allowed to marry: eugenics at its finest.

Let's face it, marriage is a symbol. As a symbol, it represents a strong, lifelong commitment. People confuse the symbol for the thing itself: they think the ceremony or title of marriage is what is important when it is the underlying thing itself that is crucial, the love and commitment between people. That is what existed first in human history, before the institution of marriage was ever invented. The symbol is not the thing. When we recognize this distinction, I think it becomes clear that, if anything, we should be trying to protect what is at the core of marriage -- the relationship between people -- rather than reifying the symbol into its own thing and defining it based around superficial factors (like the gender of the participants). And marriage certainly does not *require* children, else celibate priests and post-menopausal women would not be allowed to marry. We obviously see the core of marriage as something other than just procreation.

Of course, it is not just marriage that some people want restricted to the purpose of having children, but sex too. Only for procreation, they say. Generally only the more fundamentalist religious believers assert this, but it's probably still unconsciously underlying the perspective of more liberal believers (i.e. the familiar 'Catholic guilt' or feeling that sex for fun or masturbation displeases God, etc.), and I think maybe it subtly finds its way into the minds of non-religious as well. The evolutionary function of sex is to have kids, and if it's enjoyable, that's because we evolved pleasure-oriented nerves in order to encourage us to have sex more often in order to pass on our genes more successfully.

But come on, we are not bacteria, programmed just to pass on our genes. Yes, that's part of the equation; we're still biological creatures with DNA programming that affects us. But we've also grown beyond that simplistic programming -- the fixed action patterns of really basic life -- in exchange for a much more rich and varied behavioral repertoire. We have evolved complicated brains full of deep, tangled-hierarchical, self-referencing feedback and self-representation that we can control our own actions, think about what we want to do and make choices. We can choose when and how to have sex, and furthermore why. We are not even constrained to simple estrus cycles like many other primates -- we can and do have sex when we feel like it. And birth-control technology has allowed us even further control over the consequences of our sexual behavior.

We've loosened the biological tie between sex and reproduction, and I think that's a good thing. It's not that reproduction is any less important or beautiful, but we now understand that sex is more than just a means to that one end.

I think sex is an integral part of the human experience. It is a form of play, a ludic romp, sometimes silly or messy but always fun. It is a method of deep communication between two people, understanding another person's desires and feelings on a profound level without having to speak a word. Sex is a way of expressing your affection physically; it's like a whole-body kiss. Touch is a crucial need for humans, and in sex your entire body is in tactile contact with another. It is an intimate bonding experience; you open yourself up, make yourself vulnerable, but eventually you transcend self-consciousness and psychological hang-ups and end up closer than before. Physiologically - neurochemically -- it bonds a pair together, as well. Sex is so many things, and few of them are by necessity attached to reproduction.

Reproduction is just one element of a multi-faceted behavior that is so much more than that. And it is sad that so many people still see sex on such one-dimensional terms. And it is sad that people would restrict marriage -- and the legal rights that come with it -- on such arbitrary and inconsistent terms as well.