Friday, June 28, 2013

Check Out the Badassest Baby Book Ever. Baby.

What Makes a Baby, by Cory Silverberg, is an introduction to human reproduction written and illustrated for kids as young as 4. The awesomeness: It doesn't assume that the reader is biologically related to his (exactly) two parents, both of whom are cisgendered and straight, and both of whom are married and monogamous. It explains the plain facts of the biology in a way children can understand, and it otherwise leaves the narrative of how the reader came to her current family for the family to tell. Check it out!

"When an egg and a sperm meet, they swirl together in a special kind of dance. As they dance, they talk to each other. The egg tells the sperm all the stories it has to tell about the body it came from."

You can order a hard copy through Amazon, or read the Kindle version right now, and the 60 page accompanying reader's guide for adults is available as a free PDF.

But instead of just buying it, what I really want you to do is make sure your local library orders it if it hasn't already!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Instability of Values Over Self Modification: Why Babies Creep Me Out

(Inspired by "Schelling fences and slippery slopes" by Yvain.)

Dear everyone who keeps human larvae as pets,

I am sincerely happy if you've found a way to satisfy your central values and if your children make you happy. Honestly, there are central terms for the preferences and happiness of others
 in my utility function. So please only read the following in light of that. I am not criticizing you for choosing to spawn, and, indeed, your kids are adorable and I like watching videos on Facebook of them playing with puppies and eating cake with their entire faces, so keep it up.

Here's what's bothering me. When I look at the walls of my friends with children, almost every post involves the kid. This is perfectly understandable. I also post almost exclusively about the things that interest me most (namely rationality, dance, and math), and of course your kid is the most important thing in the entire world. If I had a kid, I'd almost certainly think the same thing about it. I would love it more than I knew I could love, and everything else would be at least second place.

And I find that ABSOLUTELY TERRIFYING. It means that there exists a parasite that can first implant itself in the lining of my uterus, with or without my consent, and use me as an incubator before torturing me for hours or days as it extricates itself from my body.

And that's not the scary part.

It can then begin to covertly re-write the foundations of my personality, undermining my adherence to beliefs about the significance of my own happiness, the happiness of my friends, self-optimization, world-optimization, and anything whatsoever not directly necessary for its own survival. In fact, it would make sure that I'd not even hesitate to die (or kill) protecting it, regardless of whether its continued existence would most likely help or hurt the other things I (used to) care about.

From my perspective, this strikes me as a completely insane thing to desire. It's like wanting to take a pill that won't satisfy your values, but will change your values such that current circumstances already satisfy them, never mind that it means replacing yourself with SOMEONE ELSE ENTIRELY.

How the hell do people just take that in stride???

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Powerful History of a Popular Hymn

You have definitely heard "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" at some point. It's the one with the chorus that goes "Glory, glory, halleluiah, etc., His truth is marching on." I heard the melody at a swing dance last night, and as all three lyrics of the chorus that I knew were playing incessantly through my head on the way home, I started to wonder what the rest of them might be. When I finally looked them up, I was shocked by how strange, powerful, and violent the verses really are. "He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword" is not something I generally expect to hear in an apparently upbeat popular song.

Until today, there's been no better way to put me to sleep than to start talking about American Civil War history. Boy has this changed things! I now feel an overwhelming pride to be the same species as the creatures who took part in creating this song--mixed, of course, with crushing disappointment that my American history classes failed so spectacularly. In case yours did too, here's why The Battle Hymn of the Republic is awesome.

Julia Howe

Just before the cold dawn of a November morning in 1861, poet and activist Julia Howe awoke from a dream. Beating against the cage of her skull were lyrics begging to be committed to paper. Stumbling in the dark for the nearest pen, frantically she wrote. Her verses were first published in Atlantic Monthly in February of 1862, about a year after the beginning of the Civil War.

The day before that dawn, she'd attended a public review of troops just outside Washington, DC. While the soldiers were gathered, they began to sing. They sang these words, to the tune of a snippet from an old campfire spiritual called "Canaan's Happy Shore", and Howe listened to their song.

John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave
John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave
John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave
But his soul keeps marching on

Who is this John Brown, 

and what has he to do with the meaning of Howe's song?

Some consider Brown a terrorist, others a hero. To the troops through which first "John Brown's Body" and then "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" shot light lightning, clearly he was a martyr.

Five years earlier, during the Bleeding Kansas border war, Brown distinguished himself from other abolitionists by insisting that passive resistance to southern slavery advocates would do nothing but protect the complacency of free northerners. If the Good Guys are to win, he thought, they'll have to actually do something. And he knew that it would have to involve violence.

His biographers say he believed he'd been sent to visit God's justice upon slaveholders and those who supported them. Whatever his motivation, he caused people to ask themselves, "How much do I care about what I believe? What will I do if I'm called to act? Would I fight for freedom? Would I kill? Would I die?"

In 1859, under Brown's command, some proved that the answer was "yes". His very own army set out to raid a federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Their objective: Arm the local slaves for insurection. The raid was unsuccessful, and Brown was captured by the forces of Robert E. Lee.

In the following months, it became apparent that many more really would fight for freedom with their own hands. A year after John Brown's death, the song of his vision coursing through the northern air, half of a country went to war to save four million people they'd never even met.

This is the story Julia Howe immortalized when she wrote "The Battle Hymn of the Republic".

Why is this my new favorite song?

Because it means that when it matters enough, when a strong enough leader arises, sometimes--not always, but sometimes--humans will abandon personal comfort to fight for a better world.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on.

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat:
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.