15 December 2012

Moral Decrepitude

Yesterday, a very tragic shooting took place at an elementary school. Hopefully, we as a nation can have a dialogue concerning these events, and how we may be able to reduce them - such as addressing lack of access and stigma associated with mental health services. However, this is not what I want to discuss. I have seen multiple people use this to say that we are a morally bankrupt society and that essentially the entire country is going down the ethical tubes.

I agree we see a lot of things that we shouldn't. A nation with a food surplus has people going hungry at night - that doesn't make much sense. A country with many vacant buildings has homeless - that doesn't make much sense. A country with the largest military by far also having comparatively weak schools for the industrialized world. We can argue the corruption and decrepitude there.

It is not fair or correct, however, to say that crime is increasing. It is not a fair characterization of our society, and is simply not true. Violent crime has, in fact, gone down and been going down. We have even gotten to witness phenomena that nobody would have expected - like NYC having a day without reported violent crime being. Crime is not increasing (I'm sure if we count piracy or something it might, but I feel like after the fall of Limewire and MegaUpload that is probably down too though I don't see stats on it partially because it is so hard to track). If you want to attribute the rise in apparent crime to anything, our population has gone up quite a bit, and there is lots of sensationalism about certain kinds of crime.

As for the selfishness issue, there is a major discussion as to whether or not Generation Y (the Millennials) are more selfish or more community minded (or both, do they have to be opposed?). The previous generations tried to teach us to be selfish with all that invisible hand in economics propaganda. They often still try to insist that we become doctors and dentists when we don't want to, though many of us are deciding we can take paths that we want to take (I would argue that is why we have seen graduate school enrollment go up a few times for our generation). I also think to all of the people I know who are going into programs such as Teach for America and the Peace Corps, or who want to do non-profit work. As a society, more people are volunteering. I think an apt description of our generation as a whole is the nickname "Trophy Kids." I would thus argue that we have this odd tension between being selfish and being community-minded, with the two sometimes being linked in weird ways. I don't want to say that there isn't a selfishness or entitled attitude to any of the current generations, but merely to say there is more argument over this topic then people portray (probably due to sensationalism of the topic and portraying what people want to hear). I'm not actually disclosing my opinion on this topic here (though I will discuss it with people if they want me to), but instead noting that it is more complicated than the posts I have seen are portraying it.

I think that we need to get away from a "Glory Days" way of thinking, where we discuss about why the past was far superior. The past had good traits, and the past had bad traits and we must accept that. The past is not the society we want to have though. We excel when we recognize our best days are ahead. While we have major challenges (climate change, water shortage, population maxing out), we also have huge opportunities. Our best days can and will be ahead if we recognize that they can be. Our current way of living may have to change, yes, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. It might just make our lives better.

13 December 2012

100th Post!

Apparently This is my 100th Post
Seems like a pretty good reason to celebrate. I think the best way to handle such an occasion would be to look back at my first post, and then look at what are currently my five most viewed posts.

My First Post

In the Beginning
Yes, I really did entitle it "In the Beginning." Fantastic, I know. It is filled with great stories of spilling chemicals on myself, revealing :-DD! (The "Ultra Happy Face of DOOM"), botany battleship, and coordinating the Big Gay Callout (I chose a crazy day to start a blog!). After recanting these things, I go into the purpose of the blog, and something that I'm going to revisit:
All of the above comes together to finally form this - the blog I have been saying I would start. You see, I was a little worn out, and after a shower I finally felt the urge to start. I knew that my blog would be named, "The Walls Line the Void," because I feel that is what I do. The world is chaotic, but out of the chaos we have found order (pseudo-order? culturated order?). We have built up our lives, our societies, our cultures, and our ideas. We have essentially lined the great void with walls (and don't take this in a negative sense. We humans have plenty of room to add on in the void!). This house that we have built in the void has plenty of work to be done, and we humans will have to get hopping, but that is why we are all on this ride (that we call life?).
Yes, my blog is "The Walls Line the Void." It comes from me mishearing lyrics (which actually noted walls being lined with bullet holes, which is much less artistic in my mind). The point of my blog, as the above discusses, is to address the walls that we have built in this crazy life. There is no over-arching purpose in life, we get to define our own purpose. We get to make our own order out of chaos. Of course for me much of that has dealt with social justice (and there is some science and other assorted politics, though my writings under-represent the science aspect of my life). I think my top five most viewed posts fit nicely into this schema, as they deal with helping to fix up the walls that we have built in this void.

Fifth Most Viewed Post
Race-Based Vandalism at Purdue
There were multiple incidents of race-based vandalism while I was at Purdue. This one deals with a racial slur being written on the photo of a prestigious alumnus. The quote that I feel like pulling out of this post is the following:
What I want to see come out of this event of vandalism is something substantial. With the painted tree incident, CORE came to fruition. CORE has meant a lot of a number of minority student groups (I at least can speak from my own experience with LGBTQ issues). These bias events are far too common. The vast majority of them are just ignored, or not reported. What I really would like to see is this event being used to push out the new online bias reporting.
 I then proceed to discuss how Purdue NEEDS to advertise its online bias reporting system. As some may wonder, now that I have moved on the graduate school at the University of Minnesota, the University of Minnesota does have an online bias reporting form. Yet again, this is not well advertised. I only know it exists because I knew where to look for it and even had to go through a few links after a Google search. Clearly Purdue isn't the only one that has done an inadequate job of advertising bias reporting procedures.

Fourth Most Viewed Post
The Problem of God Symposium - LGBTQ Issues Session
Actually, of my two "Problem of God Symposium" posts, this is not the one I would like to have be most viewed. My The Problem of God Symposium - Religious Pluralism post was better (since I took detailed notes on that session and did not on this one), but the issues people read my blog for are clearly more LGBTQ issues than anything else, and so the LGBTQ Issues post has more views.

This post comes from me attending an event put on by a conglomeration of Christian groups on campus. It was an incredibly bias event, and if you want to find out more you can read the post. I will give you a quote though that I think typifies my reaction to the event, which was to state that there are places that are safe at Purdue even if this space didn't feel that way:
I want to remind people that there are safe places. The Atheist community is often welcoming of LGBTQ individuals. There are a number of churches (as well as synagogues, mosques, temples, et cetera) that are open and accepting of LGBTQ identities. At Purdue I feel safe in telling people that if they need help they can go to the Society of Nontheists, the Chapel of the Good Shepard (Episcopalians), the Wesleyan Foundation (Methodists), the Unitarian Universalists, and the Pagan Academic Network. These places are open if they need to talk through their sexuality and their religion (or lack thereof). The Queer Student Union (housed in Stewart G20) is also open to talk through problems. Many of the people in CAPS are open to talking. I also encourage people to report incidents of bias and discrimination. At Purdue gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation are all protected. In West Lafayette the same three are also protected. In all of Tippecanoe County sexual orientation is protected. People should not have to live in an environment where the fact that they are LGBTQ is held against them. Let's not let the misinformation from events like this go unchecked, and let's not tolerate heterosexism (or any form of prejudice for that matter).
Third Most Viewed Post
Response to Anti-LGBTQ Exponent Opinion
As you can imagine, anti-Queer letters occasionally made it into the campus newspaper. I actually respond to this line by line. Then, a bit later, Laura Blackburn (also a president emeritus of the Queer Student Union) and myself  wrote a post entitled Boilermaker Values. I think Boilermaker Values was one of the best pieces I have ever been a part of writing. Yet that isn't the post that made it into my most five viewed (my first post on an issue/event tends to do better than my second, I'm assuming due to reactionary responses). As I typically do, the thing I like to highlight about Purdue is its land grant history. I love that it was a land grant (I also love that the University of Minnesota is a land grant). I strongly believe in public, accessible education, which is why land grant universities were founded. Thus I am pulling the following quote from this post:
What are our Boilermaker values though? Is equality not a Boilermaker value? Is academic freedom not a Boilermaker value? Is inclusion not a Boilermaker value? Is fairness not a Boilermaker value? I could go on and on and on. When I think of Boilermaker values, I would like to think we strive to be a university where people can think, invent, create, and discover regardless of who they are or where they come from. I think of Purdue's land-grant history - something that is important to me. Purdue is meant to be for the common person. It is meant to make education accessible to the general public. Purdue is meant to be a diverse, inclusive environment where people can come and study, learn, discover, and grow. I think we need to fully embrace our land grant history, and our land grant values, and those mean being an inclusive campus that is open to everybody willing to learn and discover.
Second Most Viewed Post
Anti-Religion, Christian-Endorsed Board
Essentially, what happened here was a Christian group on campus put up a board to find out why people have problems with religion. It was an interesting idea, and I hope they were able to use it to help improve themselves. Quote I am pulling from the post:
Anyway, apparently they want to learn more about the qualms people have with their religion. They expected the hypocrisy, oppressive, and hate messages. I think this is a very noble idea, as trying to improve one's community is important.
Most Viewed Post
Purdue Board of Trustees Expands Nondiscrimination Policy
The most viewed post of my blog so far is the press release I wrote on Purdue expanding its nondiscrimination policy. I have written several posts on this matter, and I think it is quite appropriate that this is the most viewed post that I have written for my blog. Watching the Board of Trustees approve the additions of gender identity, gender expression, and genetic information to the nondiscrimination policy of the university is the proudest moment that I have had. Purdue took a huge step forward, and I think it really got the ball rolling to get Purdue to where it is now and where it is going (I have heard great things, and can't wait to check in on it when I finally visit Indiana again!). This post is a short press release, so I'm not going to take a quote from it.

It has been a great first 100 posts. Quite a lot has happened since I started the blog, and I don't even know if I feel like the same person as who wrote the first post. I started the blog my second semester at Purdue, and I am still continuing it. My posts are pretty erratic, sometimes I have several at once and sometimes I go months between them. LGBTQ issues are well represented in what I write about, but not exclusively. I do write about research after all (for example the two minute talk I gave as part of my grad program's lightening talks!), and have talked about off-the-wall topics as well (like a recipe).

Thank you for reading what you have, and hopefully I will have some interesting things to discuss in the future.

12 December 2012

Scientists Figure Out Gayness! Nevermind...

The other day I saw a press release stating, "Study finds epigenetics, not genetics, underlies homosexuality." This has now gone on to make it around some news agencies and onto the Queer Blogosphere. I'm getting frustrated by the discussion that I am seeing on it, so I am going to discuss this briefly.

First, let's address the issue being discussed. Same-sex sexual behavior is seen in a number of organisms, and is so prevalent and well-known I don't think I need to go into that. Evolutionary biologists often ask questions about why certain traits came to be and how they can be maintained. Trust me, I spent the previous two weeks discussing the evolution and maintenance of sex - evolutionary biologists love to argue these kinds of things. While this is pure science, it does help us understand quite a bit about biology and how living organisms works (so for the question of "why study it," it really is a legit and worthwhile thing to study).  Obviously, same-sex behavior is a bit of a puzzle, and so some people want to think about how it may arise. This has nothing to do with wanting to "cure" Queer people, but it is an interest of how a trait that lowers reproductive output of an individual could be so prevalent in so many organisms.

Judging by the press release, the study seeks to address this question (a question that could be generalized to traits other than same-sex attraction) by using a common technique - making a mathematical model. These models are interacting equations. We can modify what goes into the equations, based on assumptions or actual measurements we make, and change the numbers we used, based on assumptions or actual measurements we make. These models are to try to understand a complex world, and so they rely on us making assumptions. Often times, these models give us something to compare against, are thought exercises, or allow us to try to find the simplest model that has some actual explanation power.

This study was a model. They made some assumptions and tried to see if same-sex attraction being so common would be feasible, mathematically, under these assumptions. Based on their model and the assumption the authors made, they have seen that it is possible that epigenetics (markers on genes that help turn them on/off) could work.

Remember that the study relies on assumptions - assumptions that are often cultural in nature. The headline is misleading. It would be much more accurate to say "Study shows epigenetic cause of sexuality is feasible."

Many people study sexual behavior in biology. A lot of biology is influenced by sex, and it is quite complex. This doesn't mean that the scientists are seeking out a "cure" for being queer. It means they are doing what people do - asking questions and trying to find possible explanations. It is completely legitimate to ask these kinds of questions. It is also completely legitimate to question these studies. What assumptions are made? Are those assumptions based on cultural biases and not biological realities?

As an additional note, nature and nurture don't have to be mutually exclusive with sexuality. Regardless of what this study means, or the many other explanations for why Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual human and non-human animals exist, we should still demand our rights. It doesn't reduce who we are to know why we have the feelings we do, but the feelings we do certainly have a cultural component in addition to any biological component.

So yeah, just don't freak out about this study either way, okay? That's really all I'm asking for. Recognize it is a model. It makes assumptions. It is checking if an idea is feasible, and it certainly isn't looking to change people's sexual attractions and behaviors.

08 December 2012

Supreme Court Takes it all on Marriage

As you have probably heard by now, the Supreme Court will be considering whether or not DOMA [the Federal ban on recognition of marriages based on sex] and Prop 8 [California's ban on marriages based on sex] are constitutional. I have talked about what I expect to see earlier. Since Prop 8 is in the mix though, I think it is quite likely that the issue of whether or not Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual people are a suspect class will come up [since these laws are designed to discriminate against LGB people]. Instead of going through everything, I just wanted to show how a Focus on the Family quote is correct if you just flip their interpretation.

"The Supreme Court’s decision today to determine whether the Constitution allows state and federal government to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman is a welcome development. When the executive branch of the government is no longer willing to defend its own law, the final arbiter must be the highest court in the land. Today’s announcement sets in motion a process that may conclude with one of the most momentous decisions ever rendered by the United States Supreme Court. Will the Court affirm the basic design of the family that has stood throughout cultures worldwide for multiple millennia, or will it engage in a sweeping exercise of social re-engineering with profound ramifications for this and future generations? The justices and personnel involved deserve our prayers for wisdom and discernment." - Jim Daly, president of Focus On The Family (Taken from Joe.My.God).

The part that is backwards, at least in the sense that Focus on the Family doesn't know what they are talking about, is the statement, "Will the Court affirm the basic design of the family that has stood throughout cultures worldwide for multiple millennia, or will it engage in a sweeping exercise of social re-engineering with profound ramifications for this and future generations?" Anybody who has taken a moment to look at human culture beyond just our Euro-centric Western model will note that the "basic design of the family" is very different in different cultures. They probably haven't even looked at marriage laws across the world. Just to give you an idea, let's look at plural marriages today (more than two people). The map from Wikipedia shows (where dark blue and light blue mean it is allowed, and teal means they are recognized from other countries):

 Even in the West marriage hasn't been stable for the last 200 years, let alone millennia. The West certainly hasn't been stable with marriage. As one infograph from this website puts it:
This infograph doesn't even take into consideration some of the other changes, such as allowing felons to marry, but it at least gives one an idea of the changing history. So, the Supreme Court affirming the history of marriage would likely be following the 14 previous Supreme Court cases about it, and expanding it to include couples of the same sex. 

The next aspect of their statement, or the, "sweeping exercise of social re-engineering" is what has already been done. It is social engineering that many states only recognize marriages between one man and one woman, and would still be social engineering to restrict marriage to couples of the opposite sex. That is, in essence, the law saying that straight couples are superior to queer couples, which is definitely social engineering in my book.

06 December 2012

Rock Paper Scissors in R... Fail

I was trying to make a Rock-Paper-Scissors game in R. Unfortunately it appears one can't make the program wait for user input. I even tried to have a while loop that would keep one in the loop until a value changed from NA to something else, but even that didn't seem to work. The try() command was my latest attempt but that didn't seem to improve the situation either. I have posted the code below for reference when I talk to people about this issue:

# Rock-Paper-Scissors in R
# Author: Nicholas Goldsmith
# Date : 05 December 2012 to
#Program standards:
# 1 is Rock, 2 is paper, 3 is Scissors

#Steps for the algorithm
#1) Have a while loop
#2) Bring up the menu, asking if they want to play or exit
#3) If play, generate the computer's play OR exit the loop
#4) Ask for the user's play
#5) Compare the plays
#6) Declare a winner
#7) Restart loop

#Use this to generate the computer's move
#result=sample(1:3,1) #generates a random number for the result

#To get user input
#cat("\n","Enter a number", #Prompt user for input
#    "\n","Enter 1 for Rock, 2 for Paper, and 3 for Scissors","\n\n")
#y<-scan ets="ets" input="input" n="1)" p="p">

# Apparently this is a lost cause because you can't make R wait on input
# from the user

#The Initial Start of the code
cat("\n","Welcome to Nicholas' R Rock-Paper-Scissors", #Display Initial Menu
    "\n","Enter 1 to Play or 0 to Exist","\n\n")
play<-na p="p">try(n <- nmax="1)," scan="scan" silent="TRUE)</p" what="integer(),">wins=0
#The Game Loop
  computer=sample(1:3,1) #generates a random number for the computer's play
  cat("\n","Enter a number", #Prompt user for input
      "\n","1 for Rock, 2 for Paper, and 3 for Scissors","\n\n")
  user<- na="na" p="p">  try(user<-scan ets="ets" input="input" n="1))" p="p">  if (user==computer){
  if (user==1){
    if (computer==2){
      cat("\n","Computer throws Paper, User throws Rock","\n",
          "Sorry, You Lost.","\n\n")
    if (computer ==3){
      cat("\n","Computer throws Scissors, User throws Rock","\n",
          "Congratulations! You won!","\n\n")
  if (user==2){
    if (computer==1){
      cat("\n","Computer throws Rock, User throws Paper","\n",
          "Congratulations! You won!","\n\n")
    if (computer==3){
      cat("\n","Computer throws Scissors, User throws Paper","\n",
          "Sorry, You Lost.","\n\n")
  if (user==3){
    if (computer==1){
      cat("\n","Computer throws Rock, User throws Scissors","\n",
          "Sorry, You Lost.","\n\n")
    if (computer==2){
      cat("\n","Computer throws Paper, User throws Scissors","\n",
          "Congratulations! You won!","\n\n")
  cat("\n","Current Score","\n",
      "Wins: ",wins,"\n",
      "Ties: ",ties,"\n",
      "Loses: ",loses,"\n\n")
  cat("\n","Would you like to play again?", #Display Initial Menu
      "\n","Enter 1 to Play or 0 to Exist","\n\n")
  play<-na p="p">  try(play<-scan et="et" input="input" n="1))" p="p" user="user">}