Saturday Storytime: For Digital Girls Who Drink Tonic Water at the Bar When Purple Rain Isn’t Enough

You get exactly zero guesses why I felt the need to share this story from Afrofuturist Ytasha L. Womack this week.

This place serves no coffee and if you’re looking for a quick snack, forget about it. This is a hall for drinkers. If we were in Beowulf, I’d yell for someone to pass the mead. This place is all red light bulbs, shadows, flashing balls on screens and intoxicating electrically charged house beats. I’m a sparkling disco ball in a place like this. But everyone’s so chill. They’re such a been there, done that kind of crowd that my arrival is an afterthought.

So I pull up to the bar, order tonic water, and the regulars shake their heads. Being diet conscious is a no go at this calorie laden spot, but I’ve earned the privilege of ordering an occasional nonalcoholic beverage and as a result I’m not tossed out of my seat with VIP.

And I worked hard for this privilege.

Just as I was guzzling my tonic, between cheering for the March Madness star of the hour, a figure pulled up beside me and slid another tonic my way.

“Pour toi,” he said.

His name was Andrew, he said. A tall, attractive lanky brown man with a blond buzz cut and black rimmed glasses, he rocked red skinny jeans and a matching jacket with silver buttons, high top black All Star kicks and a vintage Harold Washington button on his red blazer.

Andrew said he was a newcomer, an Iowa state grad who moved to Chicago to launch his start- up dreams. He didn’t follow basketball much. But he was a tonic water drinker too, he said, and felt that the two of us should bond over fizz and bubbles. I’ve talked to men who like fizz and bubbles, but I’ve never talked to a man who didn’t follow basketball. Hmmm.

“What’s your start up?” I asked.

“It’s a little complicated,” he whiffed, shoving a handful of popcorn in his mouth from the trough they serve in the back.

“Try me,” I said.

“It’s a brain trust,” he said matter-of-factly, like it was some kind of insider trading terminology that stockbrokers use.

“Like a think tank,” I said, thinking of the DC policy wonks and their political foibles.

“Not quite,” he said, sniffing. “We upload neural data for safe keeping.”

“You file research?” I added, not quite sure what he meant, but still trying to eye the screen and keep pace with the too cute frenetic players on screen. Swish. But my halfhearted attention wasn’t doing it for Andrew, who swiveled on the swivel-less bar stool to devote his full energy to the explanation.

“Imagine,” he said, “a loved one has critical information for you. An answer to a question, a key to a lock, and directions to something lost, but they never had an opportunity to share it with you. They passed on and the information is gone.

“Um hmm,” I said.

“Gone,” he repeated, emphasizing the “g” like some frat boy dance stomp at the end of a step show phrase. “What if you could retrieve that information?” he said, his eyes twinkling.

What if you could? I thought. I looked to the flat screen for comfort, but the players running up and down the court couldn’t outrace my uneasiness at Andrew’s speculations.

“Modern man has walked the earth for hundreds of thousands of years,” he said. “And with each new generation, we gain as much information as we lose. You can’t tell me that no one in human history ever had the cure to cancer or the true map of the pyramids. Libraries have burned. Cities have disintegrated. Files and discs destroyed. With death, we lose data and each generation is forced to chug along building from what’s left. There’s got to be a better way.”

“So you want to stop death?” I said, my voice hovering just above a whisper. We were interrupted by cheers from the revelers. Someone dunked, but I was no longer paying attention to the screen. Andrew had me captivated. He leaned into my ear.

“I wish,” he said. “My company has acquired a technology that encodes messages and memories, like uploading your brain onto a database.”

“No way,” I shouted. The VIPers looked my way. They were suspicious of the tall stranger and perked up just in case. And like good protective men, they should be.

“We’re past the testing phase,” Andrew continued. “Several hundred people have already gone through the process. They’re mostly seniors who want their families to have access to family history. But it’s just the beginning, and we’re growing . . . fast.”

One of the VIPers, the former athlete who doubles as bar big brother tapped my shoulder. I nodded, indicating that I was safe and he returned his gaze to the racing dribblers on the screen.

What Andrew was talking about was pure madness, but something about his work and easy going demeanor kept me glued. Was he a government agent? Was he a specialized scientist who’d seen the unseen?

I felt like I was getting classified information and tried to remain as calm as possible, as if this was the most normal conversation in the world. And maybe in today’s world it was. “How many people you looking to upload?” I asked.

Keep reading.

Saturday Storytime: For Digital Girls Who Drink Tonic Water at the Bar When Purple Rain Isn’t Enough

Doubting the Messenger

Let’s start with disclosures, since at least Sarah Morehead, the person at the heart of this story, is trying to make this a personal dispute rather than whistleblowing on financial and organizational impropriety.

I’ve never met Sarah Morehead that I can recall. I might have, since I attended the conference that was a precursor to Apostacon in Omaha in 2012 and we’ve been at other conferences at the same time, but it would have been in passing only. I interviewed her by phone for Atheists Talk radio regarding her work with Recovering from Religion. I was ambivalent about her work, supporting Recovering from Religion while not being very impressed with the celebrity-driven direction Apostacon took. Nonetheless, last fall, I reached out to her about the possibility of her doing a workshop at Skepticon with Secular Women Work.

I’ve worked with Steph, putting her in front of audiences for both the Secular Women Work conference and the workshops at Skepticon. We’ve socialized at CONvergence, and I expect we will again.

Of the Omaha/Apostacon crew, Josiah Mannion is on my very short list of favorite people. We’ve geeked out about organizational effectiveness together for a couple of years. I’ve made sure he and his camera could get to several conferences and conventions, including raising money for us to travel together to the Secular Social Justice conference in January and report out. We’ve traded critique and advice and personal confidences. I just conspired with a bunch of other local atheists to get him up to Minneapolis for a week, where he stayed in our guest room. If I’m going to be biased anywhere in this, here’s where.

I’m Facebook friends with many of the rest of the interested parties without having met them more than briefly at best. The main exception is JT Eberhard, with whom I had a fairly public falling out a few years ago.

All that said, my introduction to allegations of financial mismanagement against Sarah Morehead didn’t come out of Omaha. Continue reading “Doubting the Messenger”

Doubting the Messenger

Saturday Storytime: The Knobby Giraffe

When I studied physics, my consuming visualizations were limited to photons and reflection and color. This story by Rudy Rucker takes things just a little further, but the sensation is awfully familiar.

“Logged my hundredth hour on the MRI today,” I was telling her that night in December. It was snowing, with all Manhattan clean and still. “I feel like I’m approaching a state where I can tweak the cosmos,” I said. “Doing it with my head.”

“You’re beating a dead Schrödinger’s cat,” said Shirley. “Or is it alive?” Being a hard-core physics prof, she wasn’t taking my ideas very seriously.

“Listen, Shirley, after my session today, I did a bunch of coin flips and I scored nine heads in a row.”

“The odds against that are over five hundred to one!” exclaimed Shirley, mocking me with fake enthusiasm. “Final proof that Irit Ziv’s mind has attained direct matter control! Quantum telekinesis!”

“Why do you always tease me?” I asked. “Can’t anyone around here be smart except you?”

“You’re smart, Irit, but you’re up a blind alley. Listen to me. The physics department is not going to approve a pile of self-aggrandizing crap. You’re like a little girl making up stories about herself. I can fly! Watch me jump off the couch!”

“You’re supposed to be my thesis advisor,” I said, suddenly close to tears. Shirley had never spoken quite so harshly to me before. “I’ve been counting on you to win over the committee.”

“I adore you, Irit, but there’s only so far I can go. Everyone knows we’re lovers. If your thesis is crap and I push it—then I look crooked. Or like a fool. You have to give your ideas an academic slant, babe. Make them look respectable.”

“In my introduction, I have a whole history-of-science thing about Leibniz’s Monadology,” I said. “Which for some reason you refuse to read. Everything’s a monad, right? Particles are monads, but so are bricks, dogs, and cities. There’s no preferred level of scale.”

“What would a monad look like if it was actually real?” asked Shirley.

“They’re like, uh, little balls or blobs. They’re shiny and they reflect each other. Like ornaments on a Christmas tree. And thanks to the reflections, the monads are in eternal harmony. They’re computing the world in parallel.”

“The committee’s going to ask what’s inside one of those mirror balls,” said Shirley.

“A parameter,” I said. “The secret code for the world.” I smiled, happy with this idea. “It’s the same parameter inside every monad. The monads are like a zillion parallel computers crunching away on the same program.”

“Not bad,” said Shirley. “Be sure to say it’s a quantum computation. And say it’s all happening in Hilbert space. That’s what quantum physicists like to hear about.”

“Okay, fine,” I said. “And instead of saying the monads reflect each other, I can say they’re quantum entangled. So if you change one monad, you change ’em all. But don’t forget I want to work my way around to direct matter control. If you can connect with the secret code inside even one monad, you’re like a god.”

Shirley paused for a minute, then sighed and shook her head. “That kind of talk is not going to fly, Irit. We’re the physics department, okay? No superpowers. You’ve got to produce a formula. A formula that specifies how your monads behave. Call it Monadrule.” Shirley was writing on a piece of paper while she talked. Something she liked to do. “You’ll say that our universe is being computed as Monadrule[secretcode]. The secretcode is an arbitrary initial input. Like a number, or a specific point in Hilbert space. Maybe you can suggest some possible toy-universe-type values for secretcode. But mainly you need a precise symbolic description of Monadrule. Otherwise you’re coming into your thesis defense like a crazy mumbling acidhead. And I’d have to vote thumbs down.”

“What about my graphs of me meditating inside the MRI?” I said. “Aren’t they enough?”

“They’re worthless crap,” said Shirley. “Nobody cares about them. Stop stalling, Irit. Do some actual frikkin’ work.”

And at this point I lost it. “Snobby goody-goody,” I yelled. “I wish you were dead.” And then I stormed into the soft snowy night and hooked up with a cute woman from the Physics 101 lab section I was in charge of. Spent the night at her place.

The next morning I hear that Shirley is dead.

Keep reading.

Saturday Storytime: The Knobby Giraffe

“Sexism and Harassment at Professional Events” Discussion Tonight

I’m doing an event tonight in Northeast Minneapolis with Women Who Code Twin Cities and Minnesota Speculative Fiction Writers, but it’s open to all. We’ll be talking about harassment in professional contexts for people whose professional lives include a lot of non-office events. From the description:

Microsoft recently came under fire for hiring women in “tiny schoolgirl outfits” to interact with guests at an event at the GDC gaming conference. Unfortunately, these incidences are all too prevalent in tech.

As a developer, I’ve seen my fair share of inappropriate behavior at conventions, conferences, meetups, happy hours and other work-related gatherings. These incidences include anything from awkward situations to inappropriate comments to outright harassment and abuse. As a writer, I’ve also been involved in the Speculative Fiction community, which has had a number of harassment issues at conventions in the past few years. Since this is a problem both communities share, I’ve invited a local speculative fiction group, MinnSpec, to partner on this event.

Discussion Topics

I’ve had a number of women ask me for advice on handling various situations at professional events. We’ll discuss the following topics:

• How to escape an uncomfortable situation, especially ones with potential to become hostile

• Recognizing body language to understand when someone else is in distress

• Understanding consent

• How to help someone else out of an uncomfortable or potentially hostile situation

• Recognizing body language to understand when you might be making someone else uncomfortable

• How to escalate issues to organizers and/or authorities

• Understanding the potential backlash or criticism that may come from reporting issues

The Schedule

6:30 – 7:00 PM – Mingle and Network
7:00 – 8:30 PM – Panel/discussion
8:30 – 9:00 PM – More Mingling and Networking

For more information, see the Meetup event.

“Sexism and Harassment at Professional Events” Discussion Tonight

Saturday Storytime: The Maiden Thief

There are stories I classify as retold fairy tales. This one from Melissa Marr is more of remix. I won’t tell you which tale, though, as that would spoil things.

As my sixteenth birthday draws near, I wait and watch like most of my classmates. He’s out there, studying us, thinking about who’s next. We’re all secretly whispering, “Not me.” We can’t meet each other’s eyes as the leaves start to drift to the ground.

Not ten minutes after I walk into the kitchen door, Karis tells me, “Today, at the market, I heard that Ella—the girl with the pretty voice and the red shoes—was late on Sunday, and her dad was going round to everyone thinking she was this year’s girl.”


“She twisted her ankle and couldn’t get home. She’s fine.”

“That’s good.” I drop my books on the table and go to the sink to wash my hands. It’s what Bastian used to do after classes, and I follow his routine.

When he was alive, my brother was my closest playmate. Our sisters were both much older than us, and the two babies after them but before us hadn’t lived past their second years. Karis, who was ten years older, was the “little mother,” while Amina, who was only two years younger than Karis, was the “big sister.” Bastian, of course, was the future, the one who would increase fortune and ease for our family. I was only the poppet, the plaything they indulged. I read every book Bastian had, and many of Father’s, too. Then, they smiled and laughed. Now, there is no laughter in our home.

The only brightness that remains is from Karis’ determined cheer.

As if she hears my thoughts, my sister takes up the song she was singing when I walked into the house, something about meadows and fields of forever. Her voice is sweet, and the words are familiar. Before Mother’s death, Karis sang more than she spoke.

Both of my sisters would make wonderful wives and mothers, but the money for their dowry is long gone. Mine went first, a peril of being the youngest. Only our household skills and presumed virtues remain as enticements to potential spouses.

Karis sets me tasks, and we work in quiet companionship. We are not petty with each other, not short of temper or ill of manner, not since we lost Mother and Bastian. We work together, and we are stronger for it. Our sister Amina draws forth the food that we sell for our money. Karis minds our home, cooking and cleaning. Once a week, she goes into town to sell what we can and buy what we need. I go to and from the school, learning so that I can figure a way to a better future. Ours is a quiet life with no friends, no outings, and little contact with the people in town. Being with my sisters fills me with peace.

But that peace is soon broken. My father comes in with something clutched in his hand. I can’t see the words on the parchment, but I know well enough what’s there. I wrote the words myself, gathered the facts, and called for action.

“Verena!” Father stops and levels me with a glare that makes me want to reach out to Karis. “What have you done?”

“Shared my findings,” I say with barely a quaver in my voice. I know he disapproves. Girls are to be seen, to be delicate, to be graceful, to be many things my sisters excel at, things I will never be—things I might not have even been if we’d kept our fortunes.

I straighten my spine and stare at my father. “It’s true. Every word of it is true.

“It’s shameful to say so.”

“It’s more shameful that no one is doing anything to catch the Maiden Thief,” I say, a tremor in my voice as I try to not look away from Father.

Keep reading.

Saturday Storytime: The Maiden Thief

Sacrificing Babies to the Fertility Gods

This is one of the essays I delivered to my patrons last month. If you want to support more work like this, and see it earlier, you can sign up here.

We’ve had new escorts a couple of recent Saturdays at the clinic. They stopped by because things were slow at their regular clinic or came into town to help out during the 40 Days for Life, when we tend to get more protesters. Both times, Guitar Guy has decided to engage the new escorts.

Guitar Guy’s name is Jeff, as he’ll tell you if he wants to talk to you. He has a nickname like most of the protesters, however, because not all of us care to talk to them long enough to find out things like names. He’s Guitar Guy because he spent much of last summer and fall playing his limited repertoire of songs made up of his limited repertoire of chords outside the clinic. It’s currently too cold for the guitar, so he has his baby out with him now instead.

(This is fine, actually. Babies do just dandy at the temps this one has been out in. How they do later when they find out they were used as a prop for their parents is an open question, however.)

It’s only recently that Guitar Guy has tried to engage escorts for proselytization. The first time, he just started talking to the two new people at the door I was on while they carried on a conversation with each other. The second time, he asked. The second time, there was a man among the new escorts.

We’ll be discouraging escorts from engaging with Guitar Guy going forward. He’s been escalating, both in starting those two attempts to proselytize and over the course of them, and there’s no way to tell what he’s escalating to until he does it. It might just be more yelling. It might not. He says he’s there because he discovered the wonders of babies when he found out he was going to be a father, but that’s so far disconnected from “so now I go out and harass the people who don’t want one right now” that predicting any more of his behavior is iffy at best.

Making that recommendation has meant listening to Guitar Guy preach. I hear what he says so the new people can tune him out. It’s annoying, but I keep myself entertained by tweeting bits and pieces of it. He seems to fancy himself a scholar.

“The Bible says abortion clinics are Hell! Did you know ‘Gehenna’ is the Greek word for ‘Hell’?”

Why, yes, I did know that, and that’s a hell of a way to mix up your Old and New Testaments and Jewish folkloric traditions to get the answer you want, and we’ll come back to your premise shortly.

It’s fascinating watching the picking and choosing that is done to try to make it appear that reverence for prenatal life has always been considered highly valuable when it’s largely a product of modern medicine. That simply isn’t true. For these purposes, if you want to see the differences, look at how Exodus 21:22-23 has been interpreted historically by Jewish scholars, then compare that to what anti-abortion groups are telling us it “obviously” means today.

Even knowing that, however, I was completely confused the morning Guitar Guy told us “they” used to sacrifice babies to fertility gods. Continue reading “Sacrificing Babies to the Fertility Gods”

Sacrificing Babies to the Fertility Gods

That’s Me!

The lovely people at The Humanist did a little interview with me that they published last week. If you’ve always wanted to know:

  • Where I come from in an educational and professional sense
  • What drove me to apply to produce The Humanist Hour
  • Where I come from in a religious sense, including why I identify as humanist
  • What my favorite book is and why
  • And who will be the featured guests at my imaginary dinner party

You should check it out. Heck, you can still check it out if you’re only now interested in the answers to any of those.

That’s Me!

Saturday Storytime: The Wolf and the Tower Unwoven

Sometimes being human is an awful lot of work. This is from Kelly Sandoval.

The wolf came back the next day, and the next, and the one after that. I made a point of sitting outside when he came, my fingers busy with stitching heat and calm into a tunic. After the fourth day, he stopped snarling.

“Why?” he asked, on the sixth day, his voice rough from all his useless howling.

“Ahh, see. That’s a boy. They don’t push creatures out of the Tower Unwoven without first forcing sense upon them. That much, at least, I’ll say for them.”

That, and no more.

“This is sense?” He rocked in place, a constant side–to–side motion that made me itchy for motion.

“Yes, Wolfling. Sense. No use fighting it. You are what you are now. Running about in the altogether and letting yourself starve won’t change what’s been done to you.”


“Forget why,” I said, not ready to speak of the Tower. “It happened. And here we are.”

“You aren’t my pack.” From him, it was an accusation.

“I’m no one’s pack.” And how long had it taken to make a truth of that statement? Wolves are not alone in their clinging.

“My ma said lone wolves are trouble.” The words were coming easier to him, the mind they’d forced on him rising to its use. Humanity is like that. You let it have a bit of your soul, and next thing you know, you forget to dream of flying.

“I’m sure she did,” I said. “And I’ve been trouble enough, in my time. But I’m too old to trouble now.”

He shrugged, a gesture that started in his shoulders and moved down his spine. “What about my pack?”

“Best not to dwell on them.” Best for both of us not to dwell on old packs. “I can’t give you answers, Wolf. What I can give you is a pair of trousers.”

He slept beside my woodpile that night, kept warm and restful by the embroidery on the clothes I’d made him. The next morning I brought him porridge, grateful for the start of a new routine. I had chosen solitude over a pack of my own with its wants, and its cruelties, and its love for me. Seeing him, wary and needing in the watery dawn light, gave shape to the quiet of my exile.

“Up with the sunrise, my boy. Come along, now. Sit.” I settled him on the porch in a relatively human posture. He snatched the bowl from my hands when I held it out, and dove into it face first, hunching possessively as if I might snatch it away.

“Easy, now,” I said. “You’ll not starve while I’ve got you.”

Now, old birds may like to talk but there’s song and there’s nattering on for the sake of the sound. Suffice it to say the wolf learned quickly. He came inside, he learned to hold a spoon, and, other than the issue of the bath, he never tried to bite me. I waited for him to speak of leaving, as those before him had. But wolves aren’t like cats or eagles. They don’t get restless in company.

I should have pushed him from the nest. It would have gone better if I had. But, selfish old thing that I am, I let him stay.

Keep reading.

Saturday Storytime: The Wolf and the Tower Unwoven

The Humanism of Star Trek

Over at The Humanist Hour this week, we got the creator and the geek perspective on learning and teaching humanism from Star Trek.

The Humanist Hour #192: Susan Sackett & Scott Lohman on the Humanism of Star Trek

Gene Roddenberry was openly humanist, and his best-known creation, Star Trek, reflects his views in many ways. Our guests this week talk about how Star Trek informed their humanism and how they use the show to educate others about humanism.

Susan Sackett became Roddenberry’s executive assistant in the mid-1970s and a humanist shortly thereafter. She contributed story ideas for two episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and worked with Roddenberry until his death. She joins us to talk about her career with Roddenberry, working with some of the Star Trek original series actors, and her career in humanism after Roddenberry’s death. Sackett also serves on the AHA Board of Directors.

Scott Lohman is the former president of the Humanists of Minnesota and a self-professed “serious geek.” He runs Diversicon, a science fiction convention in Minnesota, and gives presentations on humanist principles using examples from Star Trek. He joins us to talk about teaching Star Trek to children at Camp Quest.

Susan’s links:

Scott’s links:

The Humanism of Star Trek

Secular Confession

This is one of the essays I delivered to my patrons last month. If you want to support more work like this, and see it earlier, you can sign up here.

I was privy to the confession of a stranger the other day. By “privy” I mean that it was left under one of my comments on a friend’s Facebook wall.

I didn’t ask for it. The topic was consent for sexual activity and trying to explain why certain ways of talking about confirming consent are creepy as hell. I said something about how being simplified to bright lines and machine schematics can be dehumanizing that some people found helpful. This guy decided my comment was his perfect opportunity to talk about nearly having raped someone when young and drunk. I don’t understand or particularly care to understand the connection.

I didn’t want it. I just kept getting the notifications for the resulting conversation in email, while I was out to dinner with friends with no Facebook app on my phone and borderline service that meant Facebook was unwilling to load in my browser. Facebook doesn’t always obey when you tell it to shut off notifications, but I couldn’t even tell people to take it elsewhere. I just kept seeing the light on my phone blink as each new message came in. It was distracting and distressing.

I didn’t have a response to it. Part of the reason I studied rape trauma in college is that I’ve been assaulted. Alcohol was involved in making me vulnerable. I am and always will be my first priority when the topic is being discussed, both because of the original assault and because I’ve been treated like crap for talking about it. When given the opportunity, I’ll turn down listening even to other victims because I don’t have much in the way of resources to offer. Here, I chose not to tell my friends what was happening, so I could at least keep it contained to my phone.

My friend also declined to off this guy whatever he was looking for in response to his confession. They continued to put consent front and center instead. Eventually, this guy deleted all his comments and left the conversation in a rather permanent way.

The whole thing was ugly and invasive. What it was not was unique. Continue reading “Secular Confession”

Secular Confession