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The Thing About Sheepdogs

If you had a sheepdog who ripped the throat out of a sheep on the assumption it was really a wolf, you’d have it put down. The first time it happened.

If your sheepdogs mistook sheep for wolves on a regular basis, or even just did it, say, two or three times a year, you’d fire your dog trainer.

And no one would call you unreasonable. No one would demand apologies to the sheepdog’s family. No one would go on Fox News and describe the sheep’s death as an unavoidable tragedy where no one was to blame. No one would go digging up dirt on the sheep, or suggest that the sheep brought it on themselves by acting aggressively.

If it turned out that it was pretty much only ever the black sheep your sheepdogs mistook for wolves, no one would say that it wasn’t about color.

And if you decided to plant a tree in memory of the sheep, no one would vandalize it.

In case you missed it…

To accompany today’s article on The Great Martian War, I’ve put together this:

History Documentary Pitch Generator

A sample:

wotwii02In 1912, the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic, and sunk, among the mistiest occurrences of recorded history. Or so it seemed. Now, 3D printing and a new-age religion challenge long-held assumptions, and may just rewrite the story of the Titanic forever.

If he ever figures it out, we’re done for.

Scene: A few days before Christmas. DYLAN is upstairs. MOMMY has retreated to the library to wrap presents. DADDY is in the family room.

DYLAN (oov)

Daddy? Where mommy is?


I’m not sure, son. Are you ready to go up to bed?


Not yet, Daddy. I was just… I just went upstairs so you wouldn’t see me unwrap the lollypop.

Programming Note

So here’s the deal. I actually have a Captain Power post all queued up and ready to go. For reals.

But as it turns out, Halloween is happening this week. So I was thinking that instead of doing that post today, I’d like to do a special Halloween post instead. And since I’m doing a special Halloween post, I’m going to do it on Halloween October 30. For reasons.

And because this is pretty much the fastest I am capable of writing, I am going to move Article Day to Wednesday for a bit after that to give me a chance to build the buffer back up.  So check this space on November 5 for my analysis of “Gemini and Counting”, and stay tuned this Thursday for a special Halloween Treat.

See you then…

Sister Sister

Dear Maddy:

Congrats and good luck. It’s not easy being the older sibling, believe me I know. There’s going to be like three years where you’re totally going to want to do stuff with this awesome little sidekick, and she’s not going to be old enough to be any use at all. And then suddenly you’re going to want to start doing things where a three-year-old would be a total drag to have around, and there she’ll be insisting she gets to come with you. And because you’re bigger, you’re not going to be allowed to hit her, no matter how much she deserves it.

Even worse, over the next few years, you’re going to be doing all sorts of amazing things. Reading. Writing. Drawing pictures that actually look like things. But however impressed Mommy and Daddy are, five minutes later, your sister is going to burp, or smile, or urinate on something, and they’re going to be every bit as impressed by that, and all she did was roll over. Everyone will be all like “Awww! She’s so cute!” to her, and all like “Yeah, that’s nice whatever,” to you.

But I’ll tell you what. Some day, probably about thirty years down the road, you’re going to have the distance and perspective and have gotten your life all together, and you’ll be able to look at your sister, and it’s going to turn out that she’s pretty okay. And just maybe a little bit of that “pretty okay” is going to be because she learned a thing or two from growing up with a good big sister.

Dear Abby:

Congrats and welcome! It’s not easy being a younger sister. If you don’t believe me, ask your mother. The first three years or so, pretty much all you are ever going to want to do is have fun with your big sister, but she’s going to be all “Let’s go walk upright and leverage our sense of object permanence,” while you’re all like “I can no longer see mommy, and am therefore concerned that she doesn’t exist.” And then when you finally sort out things like hand-eye coordination and stairs, she’s still going to be all “Aww, we don’t want to take the baby along!”

Even worse, every single accomplishment you have over the next decade or so, she’ll have gotten there first. You’re going to burp, or roll over, or sing, and everyone will be all excited, sure, but then someone’s going to say, “Of course, Maddy was already doing that by the time she was two.” Anything you have trouble with, it’ll be all “Maddy had such an easier time with that,” or worse, “Why can’t you be more like your sister?”

But I’ll tell you what. Some day, probably about thirty years down the road, you’re going to be a grown-up, having a fantastic life, and it isn’t going to matter one whit that you did it a couple of years behind your sister. And if you’re very lucky, maybe one day your big sister is going to find a way to tell you that she’s proud of you.


Uncle Ross



Ross Codes! Sorting Human-Readable Numbers

I’ve been running linux at home for a few years now. One of the things I like best about it is that things tend to be built up from lots of little command line component programs instead of big GUI programs. This may seem like it makes it harder to use, but that’s only true for things you only plan on doing once. If I want to, say, resize the 500 pictures I took of my little boy over the weekend (He is darned cute), I can do it with some big GUI tool where I load each picture, click resize, move some sliders, hit OK, click Save Aa, type in a new file name. Five hundred times. Or I can write this:
for x in *.jpg; do convert -geometry 1280x1024 "$x" output/"$x"; done
Having a rich command line available to me lets me do operations on large sets of data in batches, and that’s a good thing because that’s what computers are good at.
But that’s a bit of a tangent. When I am working in linux, I often find myself dealing with big numbers. File sizes. Free memory. Free disk space.
Because I rip all my DVDs to the hard drive, I’m very concerned about free disk space. So I’ll run “df“:

Filesystem 1K-blocks Used Available Use% Mounted on
torchwood:/mnt/store0 4326436544 3654545536 671891008 85% /mnt/store0
saxon:/mnt/store1 2130562560 1073968640 1056593920 51% /mnt/store1
saxon:/mnt/store2 2145245184 467011584 1678233600 22% /mnt/store2
badwolf:/mnt/store3 5768575488 4445833216 1322742272 78% /mnt/store3

But those numbers start to get blurry after a while. Fortunately, df has an option that makes its output “human readable”, “-h”:

Filesystem 1K-blocks Used Available Use% Mounted on
torchwood:/mnt/store0 4.1T 3.5T 641G 85% /mnt/store0
saxon:/mnt/store1 2.0T 1.1T 1008G 51% /mnt/store1
saxon:/mnt/store2 2.0T 446G 1.6T 22% /mnt/store2
badwolf:/mnt/store3 5.4T 4.2T 1.3T 78% /mnt/store3

A lot easier to read. Several of the standard linux commands have a “-h” option — ls, du, free has a similar “-m” option.
The disadvantage to using the human readable numbers flag is sorting. The standard command for sorting output, sort, has a flag (-n) that will make it handle numbers correctly. But if the numbers have been mangled into ugly human-readable form, this breaks, and suddenly 1G sorts below 10k.
So I wrote this quick-and-dirty little perl script which sorts the lines in a document, properly ordering numbers which have been converted into “human readable” format in the style done by df and du.
In case anyone finds it handy, This is hsort.


So. The Slacktivist moved to Patheos. He was very excited about this move, for reasons he tried to express but I didn’t really quite understand, and also for reasons he only explained laterProtip: If you ever find yourself wondering, “Why did this seemingly savvy person do this seemingly dumb thing?” and you guess, “It’s the money, stupid,” you will hardly ever be wrong.. He assured us that he didn’t want this to destroy the almost unimaginably rich and wonderful community that had sprung up in the comments section of his blog posts in doing this, but that he thought Patheos would be a good place for him.
As soon as he announced, I found myself irrationally worried. Things on the new site looked different; they were harder to read; the new comment engine was all javascripty and third party and blocked to some people by popular workplace content filters. And the comment engine didn’t seem very us: it was threaded, and reverse-chronological, and it had a “like” button. In all, it was designed with the assumption that the point of commenting was to talk to the host, not to each other; we weren’t really expected to read each other’s comments, and if we did, we were to go off on little threads. By default, you receive an email notification of responses to your comments — something that’s really intended for a place where your typical comment thread is in the 10-20 comments range, not a place like Slacktivist, where your average thread has several hundred comments.
But my concerns were mostly technical. It didn’t occur to me to be upset about the site itself. I mean, Patheos is just some kind of religious-themed portal, right? No problem there. But others were worried. They saw some things from other Patheos columnists that bothered them. I still wasn’t too upset. Patheos wasn’t Slacktivist, and even if Slacktivist lived at Patheos, that wasn’t an endorsement of everything his new neighborsApt metaphor. If you happen to move next door to a meth lab, that may not reflect badly on your moral character, and it may not be my place to tell you to move. But I think I’d be justified if I preferred we started hanging out at my house said.
And then someone posted a comment under the name of “Patheos AdminI have absolutely no doubt this person was a Patheos Admin. In the time since, however, a number of people have forwarded the possibility that it was just a troll with no official affiliation. I see absolutely no evidence for this, and consider it wishful thinking“, and then It Got Real.
The Patheos Admin made a long post about tolerance and inclusiveness, asserting that they wanted to be the kind of truly inclusive place where people were free to express their own opinion, be it “Athiests are okay” or “Athiests are amoral monsters who should be rounded up and shot,” or “Gays are okay” or “Gays are subhumans who should be denied civil rights.” Inclusiveness, they figure, requires that we treat all viewpoints equally, as Fox News does: report “Some say the earth is roughly spherical. Others disagree” withholding any judgment as to whether one view or the other is, say, obviously false. Also, he assured us, he was not a homophobe because he totally has a gay friend.
This is when I Finally Got It.
See, I’ve been called “intolerant” before. In fact, I’ve been told that the entire republican party, Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck are “infinitely more tolerant than” me, because I said that the GOP has a party policy that supports bigotry, misogyny and homophobia, and how dare I be so intolerant as to say “If you vote for a party which wants to take the rights away from a group of people, then you are a bigot.” It used to shut me up, because “everybody knows” intolerance is bad, and it’s hypocritical for a liberal like me to say “Minorities, women, and gays should be allowed to enjoy life, liberty, and the purfuit of happiness,” while denying that bigots should be allowed to speak their mind without condemnation.
But I get it now. And here is what I told Patheos Admin:

If there’s a blog post arguing against atheism, some immediately assume the entire site is “unwelcoming to nonbelievers.” If there’s an article arguing against same-sex marriage, some will immediately cry “Patheos is homophobic!”

Yeah, no.

If there’s an article arguing against gay marriage, then Patheos is homophobic.

Because arguing against gay marriage isn’t an opinion. It’s not a belief. It’s an attempt to curtail the rights of a group.

And if you choose for Patheos to be a place where someone can post an article arguing against same-sex marriage, then you are choosing for Patheos to be a place where it is okay to attempt to curtail the rights of a group.

And it doesn’t matter how inclusive you want to be. It doesn’t matter how much you respect others. If you’re allowing someone to attempt to curtain the rights of gays, then you are homophobic.

I’m straight, white, american, nominally christian, upper middle class and male. So I can sit back and have an abstract discussion of civil rights and marriage equality and whether or not women are people. But, hey, not everyone has that kind of privilege. So I try very hard to imagine: If I were gay, if I lived my whole life in a society that tells me I’m not quite human, that tells me that I can’t marry the person I love, that told me for 31 years of my life that I wasn’t considered morally competant to go and kill people for my country, that told me I could be fired from most any job because of who I fall in love with, that might just look the other way if I were beaten to death in the street, exactly how hypocrtical would I find it if someone told me that they wanted to be inclusive and welcoming to me while they considered the question of whether or not I should be considered worthy of fundamental civil rights afforded to all humanity something worthy of debate, something where we need to look at all the sides of the issue?

You’re not being inclusive when one party’s very humanity is up for debate. It doesn’t even make sense to talk about inclusiveness when you’re still on the fence about one party’s basic humanity.

Because if we don’t all agree on the fact that all parties involved are human beings, worthy of fill dignity and respect, and endowed with certain inalienable rights, then what the hell kind of discussion can you have? What kind of discussion can you have when it is perfectly logically valid to smack down your hypothetical QUILTBAG’s argument with “Well, okay, but as we’re not 100% sure you ‘re actually a human being, we can disregard what you have to say.” (Oh, I’m sure you wouldn’t phrase it that way. You’d phrase it as “I think you’re too close to the issue to look at it objectively” or “You’re being irrational”.)

I don’t per se object to the existence of places where a bunch of priveleged white christian men can discuss whether or not women and gays are people. I think they might even be valuable places for white chrisitan men to go to help them start learning the answer to that question (It’s “yes”, by the way). But such a place can not by definition be a safe place for the excluded groups.

Because if your humanity or your rights are open for debate, a place is not safe for you. Ask yourself: how would you feel if the front page post was “A Case For Barring All Practicing Christians From Public Office”? I mean, it’s just an opinion, right? Maybe they have a point. We should give it due consideration.

There will come a time in your life when you have to make a choice: when one group wants to be acknowledged as people, endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, and another group thinks that the first group’s rights are up for debate, you can’t accommodate both. You just can’t. Sorry. When someone’s rights are up for debate, those rights are not inalienable. If you find yourself saying “We need to have a grand debate and discus whether or not Group A are human beings, deserving of the full rights granted all human beings,” you have already answered the question: you have already decided that, no, their rights are not guaranteed them as mine are to me, because my rights are not up for debate. You’ve already decided that they aren’t quite people — they’re conditional people; people who may or may not count, depending on how this debate goes.
And then you’re a bigot.
I’m sorry. I really am. I’m not trying to hurt your feelings. I know that it feels bad. I bet it doesn’t feel as bad as not being legally permitted to marry anyone you might possibly fall in love with, and I’m sure it doesn’t feel as bad as being beaten to death in the street for holding hands with a member of your own gender. But it’s just plain unavoidable. It’s a definitional thing. You’re not the worst person in the world, you’re not a Nazi or a member of the Klan, or holding up signs with Fred Phelps. But here’s the definition of “Not a bigot”:

Not A Bigot (n): A person who believes that the rights or basic humanity of another person is inalienable, beyond question or debate on the basis of traits such as race, religion, gender, sex, handicap, sexual orientation, country of origin, political ideology, philosophy, color, or other similar category.

And, again, sorry, if you think that it’s okay to treat the question of, say, gay marriage, as something where both the for- and agin- side should both be heard out and considered carefully, then you don’t meet the basic requirement. There is no amount of civility, no amount of politeness, no amount of being reasonable and rational and avoiding hate speech which changes the fact that you’re putting the basic humanity of a group up for debate based on sexual orientation. That’s not a neutral position, because “your humanity is debatable” is the opposite position of the oppressed group. That you accept the terms of the debate as valid puts you on the opposite side of it from the people who claim their humanity is inalienable. You’re a bigot.
So like I was saying, there will come a time in your life when you will have to choose: Am I going to support homophobes, or am I going to support non-heterosexuals? Am I going to support misogynists, or am I going to support women? Am I going to support religious zealots, or am I going to support atheists? You won’t have the luxury of saying “Oh, I don’t want to take sides, I think both sides have something valuable to say!”, because when you say that, you are siding with the oppressors. So when it comes down to it, who do you want to throw your lot in with?