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The Ten Commandments of Flirting, Or, How to Not Be Creepy at Atheist Conventions
The atheist community is abuzz over a discussion at last month's Women in Secularism conference, in which it inadvertently emerged that there are prominent speakers who have a reputation for predatory behavior and whom atheist women informally warn each other to avoid. This revelation (as well as a few recent high-profile examples of unacceptable behavior) is leading to the institution of anti-harassment policies at many of the major annual conventions, something I'm very happy about.
Still, from the usual quarters, we're hearing the absurd fear that these policies are "Talibanesque" (because the Taliban are well-known for their strong anti-sexual-harassment stance) and will suppress well-intentioned and harmless social interaction. Some people are even threatening not to go to conventions that have them, saying that they create too much "drama", or that they're "dividing the movement" (and harassment doesn't?).
I want to stress that if I thought for even a moment that anti-harassment policies would have this effect, I'd be strongly against them. I'm all in favor of everyone having a good time at atheist conventions. I'm all in favor of people getting to meet and greet famous atheists, to network, and to make friends. And I'm all in favor of flirting, dating and sex being options for people at conventions, if that's what they're there for. These policies aren't intended to stifle these activities, nor will they. The whole point is that they make these events more enjoyable for everyone, by ruling out only those behaviors that make others feel demeaned or afraid for their safety.
I realize that bad behavior isn't always intentional. There are predatory people who are aware of the rules and deliberately break them, but I think there are also some socially awkward people who genuinely don't realize when they're making others uncomfortable. In the interests of helping the latter group so that members of the former group can't easily camouflage themselves among them, I want to offer this non-exhaustive list of guidelines on how to not be creepy at conventions. This is mostly, but not exclusively, a guide to flirting, since that's where the interpersonal stakes are highest, but all these tips are applicable in ordinary social interaction as well.
• Pay attention to body language. In social settings, people rarely communicate their intentions in direct language (this Steven Pinker video explains why), so it's important to perceive what goes unsaid, what they express in their posture, body language and tone of voice. Body language can be difficult to interpret, but there are a few common tells. If someone looks away from you while talking; if they answer in monosyllables; if they repeatedly lapse into silence unless asked a direct question - all these things are often signs that they're uncomfortable, and that you should stop whatever you're doing that's making them feel this way.
• Don't barge into other people's conversations. This happened to me and some friends at the last Skepticon. At dinner on Sunday night, an obnoxious old guy was following people around and loudly interjecting himself into their conversations, steamrolling over whatever they were talking about to express his own political opinions. (He was a fan of Rush Limbaugh, as I recall, although this would have been equally unpleasant if he had been a liberal.) If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times: Don't be that guy.
My advice is, if you want to join someone else's conversation, sit and listen for a while first. (If they're all at a table and you're not, asking "May I join you?" is a must.) Then, when you have something relevant to contribute, jump in. Don't try to drag a discussion onto the topics you want to talk about, and don't start talking to people without regard for whether they're interested in what you have to say. A real conversation should be an exchange of ideas between all the participants, not a pulpit for one person to monologue.
• Don't interrupt or talk over other people. Even once you've successfully joined a conversation, remember: every participant should be treated as an equal and given a chance to speak. Even if you're all talking about the same thing, if you're trying to dominate the conversation by repeatedly interrupting or talking over other people, it's rude and off-putting and will make others not want to be around you. This is a common symptom of mansplaining, and as that implies, it's especially common for men to do this to women. If you're a man, bear this in mind and be extra cautious not to do it.
• Don't approach people in private or enclosed spaces. This, of course, is the rule whose breaking set off the internet flamewar that shall not be named. Even a gesture that would be innocent in other contexts can seem creepy or threatening if it's in a non-public setting, where there are no other people around, or one where the other person can't easily remove themselves if they feel uncomfortable. This applies to hallways, staircases, elevators, parking garages, and all enclosed or isolated spaces that usually aren't the setting for social interaction. If you meet someone in one of these places, it's probably best not to try to strike up a conversation. If you have to say something, make it a polite "hello" and go on your way.
• Recognize that other people's time is valuable. Again, this is an issue where That Guy-ism often rears its head. At a convention, the speakers and organizers are there to work and to network; most ordinary convention-goers are there to meet friends and have a good time. In either case, they probably want to meet and talk to as many people as possible, and if you monopolize a stranger's time, you'll quickly be judged annoying, rude, and a Person to Avoid.
If you want to introduce yourself to someone, don't give them your life story; boil it down to a few relevant facts. If you want to tell someone else an anecdote, make it short and get right to the point. If you want to ask a question after a talk, don't ask one that's long-winded, interminable, or that has numerous unrelated parts and sub-clauses. And remember that not everyone has the same interests as you do: a stranger at a convention is likely not going to want to hear your dissertation on the origins of religion.
• Approach people in public forums intended for social interaction. So, if you can't ambush someone in an elevator or wait for them in the hallway outside their hotel room, where can you meet and greet your fellow convention attendees? The answer is, in the forums that are set up and designated for just such a purpose! If you want to meet a speaker, most of them have Q&A sessions after their talks or chat with attendees at book signings. And every convention I've ever been to has satellite meetups in local pubs, restaurants and coffee shops before and after each day's activities, which you can easily find out about either from the convention website or just by asking around. This is where people go to get to know other people, and if you want to strike up a conversation or flirt with a stranger, this is where you should go to do it.
• Take no for an answer and don't pressure people to say yes. Flatly saying "no" to a stranger can come off as blunt and rude, and many people find it difficult to do. Most people in social settings use evasions like "I'm sorry, I already have other plans," "I've had a long day and I'd like to go to bed," and so on - statements that are meant as, and usually interpreted as, polite refusals. If someone says something like this to you, don't pretend not to understand, don't argue, and don't keep asking hoping they'll change their mind. Accept it with dignity, excuse yourself and find someone else to talk to.
• Don't touch people without their permission. If the other person is someone you know well, this rule probably doesn't apply. And if it's someone you're meeting for the first time, a friendly handshake is unlikely to ever go wrong. But in most other circumstances, it's not a good idea to touch someone anywhere on their body if you're not absolutely sure it's OK. This particularly applies to anyone who goes out of their way to touch only people they're sexually attracted to, which is highly noticeable, and it especially applies to men who make an effort to "accidentally" touch or brush up against women. I've seen this happen, and mark my words, guys: you're not getting away with it. Women are well aware of when you're doing this on purpose, and you can be sure they'll circulate your name as someone to avoid.
• Respect people's personal space. Not touching people without their permission is the bare minimum, but it's also advisable not to intrude on people's personal space too closely. When you stand excessively close to a stranger, it feels like an assertion of dominance, which makes people feel intimidated and uncomfortable. A good general rule is to leave a foot or two of space between you and the other person. If you're in a crowded elevator or at a crowded table, it may be unavoidable to come closer to a stranger than you otherwise would, but in all other circumstances, you should respect this rule if possible.
• Don't think you're the exception to all these other rules. This may be repetitious, but it needs to be said. At any convention, there's a small minority of people who, whether through alcohol or simple egotism, are convinced that they have no need for codes of conduct, that they can act however they want and expect to be rewarded for it. Needless to say, this attitude falls farther from the innocent-mistake end of the scale and more towards the sociopath end, and those who most need to hear this advice are unlikely to heed it. But for completeness' sake, I wanted to mention it. It's this privileged attitude that we most need to slay to make the atheist movement a safe and welcoming place for nonbelievers of all kinds.
What other advice do you have for how people can have a good time without coming off as creepy?
A team of archaeologists has discovered 3,200-year-old cheese after analyzing artifacts found in an ancient Egyptian tomb. It could be the oldest known cheese sample in the world.
The tomb that held the cheese lies in the desert sands south of Cairo. It was first discovered in the 19th century by treasure hunters, who eventually lost the knowledge of its location, leaving the Saharan sands to once again conceal the tomb.
“Since 1885 the tomb has been covered in sand and no-one knew about it,” Professor Ola el-Aguizy of Cairo University told the BBC. “It is important because this tomb was the lost tomb.”
In 2010, a team of archaeologists rediscovered the tomb, which belonged to Ptahmes, a mayor and military chief of staff of the Egyptian city of Memphis in the 13th century B.C. In the tomb, the team found a jar containing a “solidified whitish mass,” among other artifacts.
“The archaeologists suspected [the mass] was food, according to the conservation method and the position of the finding inside the tomb, but we discovered it was cheese after the first tests,” Enrico Greco, the lead author of the paper and a research assistant at Peking University in Beijing, told the The New York Times.
To find out what the substance was, the team had to develop a novel way to analyze the proteins and identify the peptide markers in the samples. They first dissolved parts of the substance and then used mass spectrometry and chromatography to analyze its proteins.
Despite more than 3,000 years spent in the desert, the researchers were able to identify hundreds of peptides (chains of amino acids) in the sample. They found some that were associated with milk from goat, sheep and, interestingly, the African buffalo, a species not usually kept as a domestic animal in modern Africa, as Gizmodo reports.
Those results suggested that the substance was cheese, specifically one that was probably similar in consistency to chevre but with a “really, really acidy” taste, as Dr. Paul Kindstedt, a professor at the University of Vermont who studies the chemistry and history of cheese, told the The New York Times.
“It would be high in moisture; it would be spreadable,” he said. “It would not last long; it would spoil very quickly.”
The researchers also found traces of the bacterium Brucella melitensis, which causes brucellosis, a debilitating disease that can cause endocarditis, arthritis, chronic fatigue, malaise, muscle pain and other conditions. It’s a disease usually contracted by consuming raw dairy products.
“The most common way to be infected [with Brucella melitensis] is by eating or drinking unpasteurized/raw dairy products. When sheep, goats, cows, or camels are infected, their milk becomes contaminated with the bacteria,” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control wrote on its website. “If the milk from infected animals is not pasteurized, the infection will be transmitted to people who consume the milk and/or cheese products.”
Dr. Kindstedt said one reason the study is significant is for its novel use of proteomic analysis, which is the systematic identification and quantification of the complete complement of proteins (the proteome) of a biological system.
“As I say to my students every year when I get to Egypt, someone has to go ahead and analyze these residues with modern capabilities,” he told the The New York Times. “This is a logical next step and I think you’re going to see a lot more of this.”
'The Great Pyramid of Chee-za'. An artist's interpretation of a very ripe, slightly deadly Egyptian tomb cheese. (Credit: Creative commons/Big Think)
However, Dr. Kindstedt did offer a bit of caution on the conclusions the researchers drew from the findings.
“The authors of this new study did some nice work,” he told Gizmodo in a statement. “But in my view, on multiple grounds (I suspect in their zeal to be “the first”), they inferred considerably beyond what their data is capable of supporting within reasonable certainty, and almost certainly they are not the first to have found solid cheese residues in Egyptian tombs, just the first to apply proteomic analyses (which is worthy achievement on its own).”
As bad as this sounds, a new essay suggests that we live in a surprisingly egalitarian age.
- A new essay depicts 700 years of economic inequality in Europe.
- The only stretch of time more egalitarian than today was the period between 1350 to approximately the year 1700.
- Data suggest that, without intervention, inequality does not decrease on its own.
Economic inequality is a constant topic. No matter the cycle — boom or bust — somebody is making a lot of money, and the question of fairness is never far behind.
A recently published essay in the Journal of Economic Literature by Professor Guido Alfani adds an intriguing perspective to the discussion by showing the evolution of income inequality in Europe over the last several hundred years. As it turns out, we currently live in a comparatively egalitarian epoch.
Seven centuries of economic history
Figure 8 from Guido Alfani, Journal of Economic Literature, 2021.
This graph shows the amount of wealth controlled by the top ten percent in certain parts of Europe over the last seven hundred years. Archival documentation similar to — and often of a similar quality as — modern economic data allows researchers to get a glimpse of what economic conditions were like centuries ago. Sources like property tax records and documents listing the rental value of homes can be used to determine how much a person's estate was worth. (While these methods leave out those without property, the data is not particularly distorted.)
The first part of the line, shown in black, represents work by Prof. Alfani and represents the average inequality level of the Sabaudian State in Northern Italy, The Florentine State, The Kingdom of Naples, and the Republic of Venice. The latter part, in gray, is based on the work of French economist Thomas Piketty and represents an average of inequality in France, the United Kingdom, and Sweden during that time period.
Despite the shift in location, the level of inequality and rate of increase are very similar between the two data sets.
Apocalyptic events cause decreases in inequality
Note that there are two substantial declines in inequality. Both are tied to truly apocalyptic events. The first is the Black Death, the common name for the bubonic plague pandemic in the 14th century, which killed off anywhere between 30 and 50 percent of Europe. The second, at the dawn of the 20th century, was the result of World War I and the many major events in its aftermath.
The 20th century as a whole was a time of tremendous economic change, and the periods not featuring major wars are notable for having large experiments in distributive economic policies, particularly in the countries Piketty considers.
The slight stall in the rise of inequality during the 17th century is the result of the Thirty Years' War, a terrible religious conflict that ravaged Europe and left eight million people dead, and of major plagues that affected South Europe. However, the recurrent outbreaks of the plague after the Black Death no longer had much effect on inequality. This was due to a number of factors, not the least of which was the adaptation of European institutions to handle pandemics without causing such a shift in wealth.
In 2010, the last year covered by the essay, inequality levels were similar to those of 1340, with 66 percent of the wealth of society being held by the top ten percent. Also, inequality levels were continuing to rise, and the trends have not ended since. As Prof. Alfani explained in an email to BigThink:
"During the decade preceding the Covid pandemic, economic inequality has shown a slow tendency towards further inequality growth. The Great Recession that began in 2008 possibly contributed to slow down inequality growth, especially in Europe, but it did not stop it. However, the expectation is that Covid-19 will tend to increase inequality and poverty. This, because it tends to create a relatively greater economic damage to those having unstable occupations, or who need physical strength to work (think of the effects of the so-called "long-Covid," which can prove physically invalidating for a long time). Additionally, and thankfully, Covid is not lethal enough to force major leveling dynamics upon society."
Can only disasters change inequality?
That is the subject of some debate. While inequality can occur in any economy, even one that doesn't grow all that much, some things appear to make it more likely to rise or fall.
Thomas Piketty suggested that the cause of changes in inequality levels is the difference in the rate of return on capital and the overall growth rate of the economy. Since the return on capital is typically higher than the overall growth rate, this means that those who have capital to invest tend to get richer faster than everybody else.
While this does explain a great deal of the graph after 1800, his model fails to explain why inequality fell after the Black Death. Indeed, since the plague destroyed human capital and left material goods alone, we would expect the ratio of wealth over income to increase and for inequality to rise. His model can provide explanations for the decline in inequality in the decades after the pandemic, however- it is possible that the abundance of capital could have lowered returns over a longer time span.
The catastrophe theory put forth by Walter Scheidel suggests that the only force strong enough to wrest economic power from those who have it is a world-shattering event like the Black Death, the fall of the Roman Empire, or World War I. While each event changed the world in a different way, they all had a tremendous leveling effect on society.
But not even this explains everything in the above graph. Pandemics subsequent to the Black Death had little effect on inequality, and inequality continued to fall for decades after World War II ended. Prof. Alfani suggests that we remember the importance of human agency through institutional change. He attributes much of the post-WWII decline in inequality to "the redistributive policies and the development of the welfare states from the 1950s to the early 1970s."
What does this mean for us now?
As Professor Alfani put it in his email:
"[H]istory does not necessarily teach us whether we should consider the current trend toward growth in economic inequality as an undesirable outcome or a problem per se (although I personally believe that there is some ground to argue for that). Nor does it teach us that high inequality is destiny. What it does teach us, is that if we do not act, we have no reason whatsoever to expect that inequality will, one day, decline on its own. History also offers abundant evidence that past trends in inequality have been deeply influenced by our collective decisions, as they shaped the institutional framework across time. So, it is really up to us to decide whether we want to live in a more, or a less unequal society."
Our love-hate relationship with browser tabs drives all of us crazy. There is a solution.
- A new study suggests that tabs can cause people to be flustered as they try to keep track of every website.
- The reason is that tabs are unable to properly organize information.
- The researchers are plugging a browser extension that aims to fix the problem.
A lot of ideas that people had about the internet in the 1990s have fallen by the wayside as technology and our usage patterns evolved. Long gone are things like GeoCities, BowieNet, and the belief that letting anybody post whatever they are thinking whenever they want is a fundamentally good idea with no societal repercussions.
While these ideas have been abandoned and the tools that made them possible often replaced by new and improved ones, not every outdated part of our internet experience is gone. A new study by a team at Carnegie Mellon makes the case that the use of tabs in a web browser is one of these outdated concepts that we would do well to get rid of.
How many tabs do you have open right now?
We didn't always have tabs. Introduced in the early 2000s, tabs are now included on all major web browsers, and most users have had access to them for a little over a decade. They've been pretty much the same since they came out, despite the ever changing nature of the internet. So, in this new study, researchers interviewed and surveyed 113 people on their use of — and feelings toward — the ubiquitous tabs.
Most people use tabs for the short-term storage of information, particularly if it's information that is needed again soon. Some keep tabs that they know they'll never get around to reading. Others used them as a sort of external memory bank. One participant described this action to the researchers:
"It's like a manifestation of everything that's on my mind right now. Or the things that should be on my mind right now... So right now, in this browser window, I have a web project that I'm working on. I don't have time to work on it right now, but I know I need to work on it. So it's sitting there reminding me that I need to work on it."
You suffer from tab overload
Unfortunately, trying to use tabs this way can cause a number of problems. A quarter of the interview subjects reported having caused a computer or browser to crash because they had too many tabs open. Others reported feeling flustered by having so many tabs open — a situation called "tab overload" — or feeling ashamed that they appeared disorganized by having so many tabs up at once. More than half of participants reported having problems like this at least two or three times a week.
However, people can become emotionally invested in the tabs. One participant explained, "[E]ven when I'm not using those tabs, I don't want to close them. Maybe it's because it took efforts [sic] to open those tabs and organize them in that way."
So, we have a tool that inefficiently saves web pages that we might visit again while simultaneously reducing our productivity, increasing our anxiety, and crashing our machines. And yet we feel oddly attached to them.
Either the system is crazy or we are.
Skeema: The anti-tab revolution
The researchers concluded that at least part of the problem is caused by tabs not being an ideal way of organizing the work we now do online. They propose a new model that better compartmentalizes tabs by task and subtask, reflects users' mental models, and helps manage the users' attention on what is important right now rather than what might be important later.
To that end, the team also created Skeema, an extension for Google Chrome, that treats tabs as tasks and offers a variety of ways to organize them. Users of an early version reported having fewer tabs and windows open at one time and were better able to manage the information they contained.
Tabs were an improvement over having multiple windows open at the same time, but they may have outlived their usefulness. While it might take a paradigm shift to fully replace the concept, the study suggests that taking a different approach to tabs might be worth trying.
And now, excuse me, while I close some of the 87 tabs I currently have open.