Blogathon Wrap Up

I know this is a few days late, but I think it’s nice to have a place where all the posts are in the same place. I also really wanted to have a place to put this beautiful word cloud I made on wordle. It has all the words from all my blogathon posts, scaled to reflect the frequency of their use. I love that I seem to talk about people a lot. The other top words are pretty broad: think, just, know, like, good. They’re my go-to verbs, adjectives and adverbs. But there’s also: math, religious, questions, atheists and argue, and that all seems to describe me pretty well.

blogathon word cloud

For those looking for what I wrote, here are the posts:

My Blogathon Announcement: Where I said I was doing it and explained why I thought it was important.

Beginning Blogathon: Where I talked about why the Secular Student Alliance is so important and wonderful (and also how I got lost getting to where I was going)

What I’ve Learned as President of the Secular Alliance at the University of Chicago: Just a bunch of thoughts on what makes groups succeed and thrive.

On Challenging Religious Beliefs: On why I’m working on not seeing challenging religious beliefs in social settings or online as so cringe-inducing, and why I’m glad people actually do it. (Big honking caveat: All normal social conventions like appropriateness and respect obviously need to apply)

Maaaaaaaath: How and why math is so freaking great. Includes crocheted hyperbolic spaces and some light cursing.

Emotion-based Arguments and the Atheist Community: On my suspicion that arguments about infighting and about accomodationism vs confrontationism might be based more on emotional bias than on good arguments.

Safe Spaces for Racists: On what a space where people could ask “politically incorrect” questions without hurting people might look like. Note: title is meant to be catchy/provocative, not an accurate description of what I’m hoping for. By the way, if you like that post, you might like this one, called, “You Want a Space for Political Incorrectness? You Got It“, in which I announce I’m actually trying to create this space.

Brain Crack: A bunch of silly random ideas I’ve had floating around, like getting kids to teach their own classes and having churches serve as homeless shelters.

That’s all! Thanks so much for reading.


[Blogathon] Safe Spaces for Racists

I said in my post criticizing the Politically Incorrect UChicago Confessions page that I agreed with various people that it would be a good idea to have spaces where people could ask “politically incorrect” questions or say “politically incorrect” things that would then be discussed calmly and charitably, with no backlash or criticism. The question, though, is what that kind of space would look like and how it would work.

Here’s what I envision (there are other ways this could work, of course, this is just one idea):

A subreddit, much like AskScience or AskHistorians, called something like AskSocialJustice or PoliticallyIncorrectEducate (like Transeducate, a great subreddit)

  • You have a verification system that gives flair (tags next to your username, essentially) that indicates what your field of knowledge is. Things like “sexism” or “racism”, or perhaps framing it the other way “feminism” or “anti-racism.” Just as in AskScience or AskHistorians, it might be optimal to have only academics in the subject be given flair, but I’d be happy to have Jessica Valenti or Ta-Nehisi Coates in there, obviously. People who know a lot about the subject and are accustomed to writing about it.
  • The rules in the sidebar are:
    • No slurs unless you’re asking about them
    • Disrespectful/cruel/obnoxious questions and comments get deleted
    • Questions that are good questions but not phrased as well as they could be get rewritten, with the original in strikeout (I don’t even know if this is possible). This lets questions from people who don’t know as much through, but keeps things more respectful and demonstrates how discourse should work.
    • Unhelpful/uncharitable/not-intended-to-educate responses get deleted, even if they’re completely correct
  • The mods enforce these rules and also mention to people that they’re being less respectful or helpful than they could be, and give concrete advice and even rewritings of the comment or question to model what the discourse should look like.
  • Mods also allow any good responses, but emphasize the flaired/tagged experts on the topic

So in the end what I envision is questions like:

  • Why can’t I use the word X, but other people can?
  • What’s wrong with calling someone a Y, doesn’t it just mean blah blah blah?
  • Why do Z people always do A? (Actually, this one would probably get rewritten as “I notice that Z people are more likely to do A than Y people. Why?” so that we encourage people to write what they observe instead of what they infer.
  • I know it’s a stereotype, but actually, B’s totally always do C.
  • Is G X-ist?

And I envision the responses being of the form:

  • Well, here’s the history of that word and what it means to people and what harm it causes when non-Z people use it.
  • So, in some sense, Y does mean that, but its meaning has changed because of these historical events, and now this is the effect it has on people.
  • You may notice that because you’re influenced by the stereotype of Z doing A, and so you don’t notice that Y does A a lot as well. It may also be that they’re more likely to as a result of alpha, beta and gamma cultural influences, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Why does A bother you?
  • Well, B actually isn’t true. The statistics indicate that C is a lot more common, even though popular media and even news outlets emphasize B far more.
  • G certainly comes out of an X-ist culture, and it might perpetuate it, but the benefits of G could outweigh those in the cases of R, S and T.

Responses would follow the guidelines of charity and civility laid by myself, Dan Fincke and others. They would be academically rigorous but as free of jargon as was humanly possible, and accessible to readers of a variety of educational levels. Responses would also contain concrete advice for how to act or what to say, giving useful potential scripts where helpful. Questions asked frequently would probably end up constituting their own page that people would get linked to if they asked the same ones.

That way, people of all beliefs, from the merely curious to the rabidly racist, get their questions answered, and they stay anonymous. They get thoughtful, charitable answers filled with resources, should they want to investigate further. The answers are logically and academically rigorous, and delivered without moral judgement or abuse, even if moral judgement would in general be thoroughly warranted. (I think there would also be a way to say, “Yes, that’s X-ist and it’s an awful thing to say to someone. Here’s why..) within these guidelines, since that doesn’t have the same effect as simply calling them an awful person. There would be plenty of empirical data provided whenever possible. Responses would emphasize the real, tangible ways that bigotry and prejudice affect people and their lives, so as to cultivate empathy, but also place responses in historical, economic, political and sociological context.

What do you all think? Would this work? Would these spaces be good? Productive? Would they still “make bigotry fester”? (Which I’m not really sure is a thing) . Would they still hurt people and spread bigotry? What would you add or take away from the rules or approach? I’d love to hear people’s thoughts.

Green Donate

[Blogathon] Maaaaaaaaath

Have I scared you yet? Talking about math seems like one of the easiest ways to terrify people, make them feel stupid, and cause them actual pain. I think that’s a shame, because math is AWESOME. I’m going to try to convince you of that in the next few hundred words.

What is math?

Math is the study of patterns and logic. Any repeating pattern or system analyzed rigorously and logically can be math. The coastline of Britain? Sure! The spread of diseases? Absolutely! What the relationship between the number of sides of a shape where all sides are the same length and the area of the shape? Definitely.

Since any pattern or system is up for grabs, math is incredibly creative. You get to just pick whatever rules or approach or framework you think might yield useful or interesting results and see where they lead you. Let’s say you were interested in triangles. You could take the points of the triangles as coordinates (like (2,5) and (3,4) and stuff) and do all kinds of calculations to see what the area was. OR, you could not care at all where the points are and just take lengths of sides. OR, you could not bother with calculations or algebra at all and do the whole thing geometrically. You can even prove things with gifs!

Ok, why are you getting so excited right now?

Because that makes math AWESOME. Anything can be explored. Look, pick some rules you’ve decided to follow. See where they lead. BOOM, you’re in an entire world of your own making. Those rules are axioms. Seeing where they lead, logically, means you prove things with them, sometimes you call those conclusions theorems. And now you have a totally new mathematical world. It might as well be writing fiction or LARPing.

You think I’m kidding, but I’m not. There are 5 axioms called the Euclidean axioms. They are as follows.

  1. A straight line can be drawn between any two points
  2. A finite line can be extended infinitely in both directions
  3. A circle can be drawn with any center and any radius
  4. All right angles are equal to each other
  5. Given a line and a point not on the line, only one line can be drawn through the point parallel to the line.

You can have all kinds of fun with just these. Take a piece of paper and see if you can convince yourself, even informally, that these seem to be true. Use crayons, markers, pencil, whatever.

Now throw them all out. Fuck ’em. We’re going to start our own mathematics with blackjack and hookers. What if instead of a straight line being the shortest distance between two points, a semicircle is. Seriously. You just invented geometry on a convex (curving inward, like the inside of a beachball) plane. It’s called hyperbolic geometry.

It looks like this.

And this.

And people freaking crochet hyperbolic curves.

You could have done basically the same thing by saying, ok, I learned in like 7th grade that all triangles have 180 degrees. Well, what if they don’t? A triangle is a shape with three sides, right? What if I want more than 180 degrees? Well, you can have whatever you want. In math, the only rule is that you have to follow your own rules. What those are, you get to decide. So draw a triangle with more than 180 degrees. Ok, it’s hard, I grant you. It seems like it would have to have more than three sides. What are we missing? What assumptions are we making? Oh! That the sides have to be straight! What if they curved out! Like a triangle you blew air into?

Congratulations, you just invented elliptical geometry. It’s the geometry that explains why planes fly like the curved line instead of the straight one:

Because the earth is curved, not flat, so the geometry changes. And triangles, just like you wanted, have more than 180 degrees.

Then Why Does Math Feel So Awful to Learn?

There are a few reasons why people hate math. For one, no one teaches math as something fun and creative. They teach it as something boring and rote, where the rules are set up beforehand and totally unchanging. To get fun math, you have to go to youtube to see people like Vi Hart make math the beautiful thing it is.

Second, because math is so abstract, it can be hard to visualize, and it makes it feel mysterious, even after you understand the problem. Like in biology, once you understand why evolution works, you get it. You know how it works. Sometimes, I’ll prove something for a class, and I’ll know it’s right, and that everything follows logically, and still not really know what I just did. For instance, visualize a line for me. That’s one dimension. What’s the two dimensional form of that? Right, a square. And three dimensions? A cube, great. And next? That question is the intellectual equivalent of moving both index fingers together in front of someone’s face, asking them to follow the fingers with their eyes, and then suddenly moving them in different directions. You just don’t know what happened to you. (For readers of Flatland, there’s a reason the sphere gets very upset when asked if there are more than three dimensions)

That shape, by the way, is called a tesseract, and it looks like the picture below in three dimensions, even thought it’s a four dimensional thing. But what does the next one look like? At some point, visualizations run out and logic and proof must take over.

Thirdly, math has a language, and it’s not an easy one to learn. There are all the symbols, for one: numbers, logical operators, less than, more than, exponent, subscript, and on and on until you think you’ll drown in them. And then there are the rules for how they fit together. This implies that. Why again? Oh yes, because this. And that makes sense because? Oh, right. But eventually, if you follow math far enough, you develop a deep respect for mathematical notation, its minimalism, its utility, and you begin to deeply distrust anyone who says, “Math would be fun, but why are there so many symbols?” (Though of course, there’s tons of math to be done without them. You get to make the rules, remember?). But you also get to criticize notation, decide that some is better than others, and take sides on Newtonian vs Leibnizian differential notation.

Proofs Without Words

But because it is in some sense, a language, I wish it was taught like one. I wish that young children read proofs without fully understanding them, just as we are encouraged to read texts in Spanish without looking up every single word. I wish we contented ourselves with the gist of the proof, the point, so that we learned to prioritize the meaning over the form, just as we may not be able to word-for-word translations of our French teacher’s request, but we know it’s time to sit down.

What’s the Point of Math? And of this blog post?

Well, math is beautiful. And fun. And creative. And the point of this blog post was to convince you of that. But if pure practicality is important to you, know that if you set up the rules properly, in that they reflect the way the universe works, then you’re going to get empirically verifiable predictions from the logical conclusions of the rules. That’s how physicists knew there had to be a Higgs Boson long before we could even in principle find one. That’s how we started building bridges.

Math can describe with incredible accuracy how the world works. But it can do so much else besides. It is a powerful discipline, and it deserves our respect. For some of us, it has commanded our reverence.

(If you’re still not convinced math is awesome, I really encourage you to check out Vi Hart’s videos and these math gifs)

Green Donate

[Blogathon] What I’ve Learned as President of the Secular Alliance at the University of Chicago

As I may have mentioned once or twice, I’ve been the president of the University of Chicago’s affiliate of the national Secular Student Alliance for two years. It all started when, as a first year, I found out about this new group, comprised of maybe 8 people, who got together and talked about atheism. I loved it. I was in my Dawkensian stage, when religion was stupid and I was brilliant for having figured it out. The group was fun, lively and argumentative. At the end of that year, I decided I wanted to be more involved, so I ran for secretary, and won. The same year, I became president of the Jewish social justice student group Jewish Action, so I was really thrust into the steep end of the learning curve of how student groups are run. But I still loved it, so when the president that year stepped down, I ran for president. That was an incredibly hard year. I had professional and social difficulties with some peers in the group, membership dwindled as the year went on, our events’ occasional successes seemed to be a matter of luck more than planning, and I just didn’t know how to make things better. Nonetheless, that year I ran my first ever Carl Sagan Day, Darwin Day and Ask an Atheist Day. We had a game night. We had some good meetings. The club persevered.

At that point, I was exhausted. I thought I was done. Someone else could take on the totally thankless job of planning meetings week after week, delegating to exec knowing I would have to do it all myself anyway and coordinating large scale events that would get a crowd looking only for free food. But then, for reasons still not totally known to me, I ran again. I still wanted to be part of the effort for what I thought was an important cause. I wanted to give my efforts to where I still thought they could do some good.

And without claiming that last year was a failure, since it absolutely was not and had many good moments, this year has been so much better. We (with DePaul and Northwestern) had another Sagan Day, bigger and better than ever. Our membership has grown, we’ve had successful social events, our meetings are bigger and more fun, our events are better, and I have a great deal of hope for the future.

On this long and taxing way, I’ve learned a few things about running a Secular Alliance group, and I’d like to share them. (I’m sure a lot of them would translate to other student groups as well.)

What I’ve Learned as President of the Secular Alliance at the University of Chicago

  1. Not everyone who isn’t talking in meetings is bored or uncomfortable. They may just like to listen or want to learn. That said, it’s totally fine to ask them privately if there’s anything you can do to make meetings more comfortable for them. Just make sure to believe them if they say no.
  2. Intellectual meeting topics are fine (we’ve talked about transhumanism, vegetarianism, death, bias, Islamophobia, ethical obligations of politicians and more), but when leading a discussion, ask questions that allow people to share stories from their lives. We’re not all West Wing characters; we can’t list statistics at the drop of a hat. But even the most abstract ideas make for good conversation if people can connect it back to their experiences and share them with others. The idea is to care what people think and where they’re coming from, not about the conclusions the group may reach.
  3. Intersperse the nonintellectual meetings! Maybe I’m the only group leader to have trouble with this, but I thought that at UChicago, I didn’t dare have nonintellectual meetings. Turns out, all college students like meetings where you just hang out and meet each other, Funny Youtube Video meetings, Creationist Bingo, egg drops off an enormous chapel, and the like.
  4. On the same note, not all meetings have to be atheist/agnostics/secular-related. We’re a community! We like talking about all bunches of things! Mix it up!
  5. On the other hand, don’t be afraid to do the atheism 101 stuff. There’s a reason we all are in the club. Talking about it is a good thing, in moderation. Why don’t we believe in god? Does religion do more harm than good? Totally reasonable questions.
  6. It’s ok for things not to work out. Planned a movie night and three people showed up? Great! That’s three people who are going to have a good evening because of you. You’ll figure out how you can improve publicity and get a bigger turnout next time. (I’m very much still working on this one). One meeting was kind of awkward? Oh well! It’ll be better next time. You’ll try something different, and see whether that works. None of us are experts at this.
  7. Follow-up to that: everyone is not judging you all the time. Your members aren’t looking for ways to think badly of you or waiting for you to fail. They’re just looking for your leadership, and they will forgive when things go wrong.
  8. Delegate and demand! Execs should be helpful. If they’re going to be in a position of leadership, it’s ok to demand that they step up and actually be helpful. They should contribute to meetings, give ideas for events and speakers, be delegated to and follow through on responsibilities, and not shirk their duties to you and the organization. Those are acceptable things to demand from them. It’s sometimes better to have no exec than a bad one.
  9. But also, have a big exec! People with named responsibilities are far more likely to follow through on them, as well as show up to meetings and contribute. As long as they’re not making your job harder, there are very few downsides to a lot of exec members. More people to do work, more burden sharing, more fun exec meetings, and more opportunities for first and second years to get involved, making transitions easier and more secure.
  10. The end of a club isn’t a failure. Just as a relationship’s success should be measured not by whether or not it ends but what it gave to the participants, a club was worthwhile if it improved the lives of the people in it, not only if it lasts forever. Any president of a student group should be proud of themselves for leading a group for whatever length of time, if they sincerely worked to give a tangible benefit to those in the group. It’s hard work.
  11. And on that note, this is hard work. It’s ok to be scared. It’s ok to be overwhelmed. It’s ok to be frustrated or mad or annoyed or sad. The work is exhausting and thankless, and you should be proud of yourself. It’s ok to make one meeting just a hangout if you don’t have the energy, or delegate an entire event to other people. And it’s definitely ok to ask for help. That’s what all other group leaders around the country are here for. And by the way, that’s what the Secular Student Alliance is there for. Which is why they could really use your donation! Any small amount you have helps!

Group leaders or group members, what did I miss? Add in comments or on twitter!

Green Donate

Excuses, Excuses, and Blogathon Begins!

As with all intrepid warriors on a quest, I encountered obstacles on my way to beginning Blogathon this morning. My dragons were CTA closings, Sunday train schedules, and my complete inability to distinguish the Purple Line from the Yellow Line. All intrepid heroes go to Skokie on their way to Evanston, right? For those of you who don’t know quite what this says about me, I’ve screenshotted a map of the route I was supposed to take. Note Skokie off to the west. Yeah…


Combine that with a few bouts of very bad internet luck, and you have my promise to start Blogathon at 10am in tatters. So the new plan is to blog from noon to sometime in the mid-evening, with a post every 45 minutes to make up for the late start.

And as I did last year, I’d like to take the opportunity to talk about why I’m doing this.

I know first-hand what incredible resources religious students on college campuses have at their disposal. Houses, mentors, communities, internships, jobs, educational and entertaining programming, spiritual and emotional support, student groups, money, encouragement are all awaiting a Jewish or Christian student upon setting foot on most college grounds. Clubs, ministries and houses of worship all bend over backwards to ensure that religious students have the best possible experience (religious or not, often) throughout their college careers. Just at the University of Chicago, there are about 10-12 Jewish events going on every week. That tells me, as a Jew, that I am welcome, and that there are resources for me.

Secular or nonreligious students have none of these. Of course, they have access to the same nonreligious student clubs as everyone else: dance, debate, political clubs and cultural groups are available to all. But any religious student engaged in religious life knows that there is often something special about having a group centered about that part of their life. I think that secular students deserve that community, too. And that is why I am a huge supporter of the work the Secular Student Alliance does. They work tirelessly to provide the resources that allow students on college (and high school!) campuses to create and foster those communities. They provide group running guides, tabling supplies, meeting ideas, and tons of support so that secular students can, on their own, create the kind of organization that religious groups do with ten times less funding and institutional support.

I am so thrilled to have been President of my school’s Secular Alliance for the past two years. I hope that I’ve provided a community that atheists, agnostics, deists, pastafarians and freethinkers at the University of Chicago have been happy to call their own. I am excited to see what it does in the future. But none of it would have been possible without the Secular Student Alliance.

If you believe in that vision, or you feel sorry for me for going all the way to Skokie this morning, I ask you to donate to the Secular Student Alliance. Even $5 helps.

Green Donate