“Civility” ought to be a dirty word.
There’s a lot to be said in its favor. An overwhelming majority of human interactions are easier, safer, and/or more effective when both parties, explicitly or through social convention, agree to be civil. This commitment is why not every instance of people bumping into each other on trains ends in a fistfight, and it’s the baseline that undergirds conversations between unfamiliar people in any space.
Some interactions need to end in fistfights.
Continue reading “A Civil Silence”
Labels are useful. Labels are shorthand that swiftly conveys one’s stances on various issues, from the delightfulness of Doctor Who to the importance of getting to make one’s own reproductive decisions. They can also convey one’s affiliations, whether ethnic, occupational, or some other group to which one belongs that has an effect on one’s thinking. Those uses don’t have to overlap, and the degree to which they don’t is often telling. One can be a racist without being a Bircher, or a Whovian without belonging to the Doctor Who Society of Canada. And indeed, most causes and fandoms and ethnic affiliations have far more people expressing interest and sympathy with them than enrolled as members of specific association devoted to those things. The population of the United States with Amerindian heritage vastly exceeds the number of people that check the American Indian box on census forms.
And then there are people who refuse labels altogether. Sometimes, this is because the existing popular discourse does not describe the kind of person they are, so none of the existing labels are accurate and new ones are, until they catch on, not effective. Eventually, they can become better known, and enter the lexicon of at least particularly aware subcultures. Once upon a time, “genderfluid,” “introvert,” “cis,” and “allistic” were nonsense words; now, they are useful identifiers, often self-ascribed, that enable conversations that would have been more difficult and time-consuming without them.
This essay is not about those people.
Continue reading “Stop Giving Winter a Bad Name”
The South Pacific rarely features in anyone’s mental registers of conflict zones. The region was a major theater of World War II, but it was settled very late in human history and discovered very late by colonizers. Its extreme isolation meant that it has mostly avoided creating indigenous conquering empires or being riven apart by colonial divisions, especially when compared to Africa or western Asia. So it’s fitting, in a way, that the westernmost edge of the Pacific region, where it blends into Asia, should be home to a long-running conflict alternately dubbed “Asia’s Palestine” and “the forgotten war.” (Someone tell that first group that Palestine is in Asia). The struggle to turn New Guinea into a free and united Papua receives far too little attention and even less understanding, which is far less than this fascinating region deserves.
Continue reading “Shifty Lines: Papua”
Canada’s parliamentary system affords a much larger niche for third parties than the United States’s legislature. In Canada, if one party’s candidates get 35% of the seats, a second party gets 40%, and a third party 25%, that 40% party will have to form a coalition with one of the others, and that coalition will select the Prime Minister and otherwise set the government’s agenda. If a particular attempted coalition cannot get along well enough to form the government, the coalition dissolves and another one tries. This entanglement between the executive and legislative branches means that the leaders of Canada cannot, usually, afford to ignore people who didn’t vote for them, and it means that third parties that manage substantial segments of the vote don’t necessarily disappear behind the ones that got slightly more, because they can become necessary coalition partners. A system like this one still eventually converges on two parties—it takes a much more complicated system to preserve more than two poles indefinitely—but it takes much longer and affords those third parties and their constituents a much greater voice in the meantime.
Suffice to say, there’s a much greater possibility to vote one’s conscience in Canada, even if some situations demand voting for whoever stands the greatest shot at keeping the Conservatives out of a particular seat.
So it was with curiosity and interest that I surveyed the pamphlets and cards that the various candidates and advocacy groups kept leaving in our mailboxes. Most of them were political boilerplate, a series of minor promises next to a candidate putting on the best trustworthy-and-not-smug mug xe could manage. But I had to give one of them a lot of extra attention.
Continue reading “Salsa Fuerte, Vergüenza Profunda”
As my dissection course draws to a close, it naturally begins moving toward the clade of animals most familiar to my students: the chordates. On its way there, it visits the chordates’ closet living relatives, the echinoderms. Students usually need some convincing that echinoderms and chordates and echinoderms have anything in common, because the adult forms do indeed have no real similarities. The evidence of the kinship between these groups, and between the vertebrates and the other chordates, is mostly genetic and embryonic. These highly divergent animals have a number of highly improbable similarities in the way their embryos form and the anatomy of their larvae, revealing that their adult forms are highly specialized rather than ancestrally distinct.
I usually start with the primitive chordates, because they’re somewhat less spectacular in shape than the echinoderms. The students get to see whole lancelets as well as numerous sections through them, so this sister group to the vertebrates is well known to them. The other non-vertebrate chordate group is the highly underrated Urochordata. These animals have all of the classic chordate characters as larvae but lose almost all of them as adults. All urochordates are filter feeders, but they have highly dissimilar means of realizing that lifestyle.
Continue reading “Animal Form and Function 7: Echinoderms and Chordates”
There are a lot of Americans with whom I can’t talk politics. I’m related to many of them. Some of them, it’s just not worth the trouble to start a conversation that is mostly going to be a demonstration of how their values are the exact opposite of mine. But there’s a specific flavor of American that I find especially infuriating, a snowflake so special it would deny its kinship with water and steam and start fistfights over the idea that it could melt, and they disturb me so much that, if I ever stop calling myself an American, it will be because of them.
Today, I’m going to call them “Patriot First, Ask Questions Later,” abbreviated PFAQL because it sounds like “flag-fondler” and that is the most appropriate shorthand these partisans could hope for. Their defining attribute is that whatever the United States is already doing is the exact right way to do things, as a function of the fact that the US is already doing it, and all other conceivable ways are the wrong way because they’re not what the US is already doing. Anything less is unpatriotic, they insist.
Continue reading “A Hell of a Swim”