The Protectionworthiness of the Cuddly

Facebook is swamped with pictures of cats at shelters that face imminent euthanasia. Meanwhile, the World Wildlife Fund has an ad on the Tradera auction site that says “Soft, Orange and Homeless” and invites me to support orangutan shelters.

There’s a reason that these campaigns don’t feature fish or lizards. And that reason is that cats and young orangutans happen to be cuddly and the size of human babies. But disregarding our parental reflexes, there is no more (or less) reason to mourn a dead cat than the chicken you had for dinner yesterday.

But I’m willing to believe that an orangutan is sentient or smart enough to fall under the same rules that declare a human life sacred. And so, probably, are dolphins, octopuses and certain parrots. This is a dangerous argument though, because it removes the duty to care for severely mentally retarded humans.

Pragmatically, if you want to collect funds for orangutan shelters, it’s probably a good idea to appeal to our baby protection programming rather than our intellects. But really, if it was a question of rational argument in the competition against other endangered species that need support, it would have been better if the WWF had written “This young orangutan is smarter than you were at that age”.

I really don’t know why the PR firm thinks the colour orange makes you more deserving of protection though.

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Easter Cryptogram

In order to find her easter egg, my daughter first had to solve a +1 transposition cryptogram with appended translation table. It gave her the location of a note with a +9 cryptogram where she was given the offset but had to write her own translation table. This led to a +9 cryptogram that resolved into Mandarin written with pinyin. She needed little help. Though since there were no tone indicators in the encrypted pinyin, she at first searched beneath a window (chuāng) instead of under a bed (chuáng).

Laptop Has Replaced Umpteen Specialised Devices

Junior’s been through an extended period of various lighter ailments that have affected his school attendance record (but not his grades) considerably. I believe this may be partly due to his sedentary lifestyle. He’s thin as a rake, like his old man, but also like his old man he’s not exactly spending his free time on a rugby court. I need to take him cycling.

My wife worries about the amount of time Junior likes to spend on the computer. I think it’s more a question of him not exercising rather than what he does specifically while not exercising. And I’ve realised that he actually does pretty much what I did as an adolescent in the 80s, but using different tech – all in one box.

  • Watch TV
  • Phone a friend
  • Play games
  • Read
  • Write
  • Listen to music
  • Paint

A young person who divided their time between these pastimes in a more traditional manner would hardly be seen as obsessive or sedentary.

He’s Not Annoying

Juniorette: “So Thomas had his semla cream bun and he said he liked it, but later he threw up.”

Me: “Thomas? Is he a new boy in your class? Haven’t heard of him before?”

Juniorette: “No, he’s not annoying. Not very.”

2011 Enlightener & Obscurantist Awards

i-230db6e878da54fec87ff8136882123f-Hjarnkontoret-barn-svt-ny-180.jpgThe Swedish Skeptics, of whom I am the chairman, have just announced their annual awards for 2011 [ab].

The Swedish public TV show Hjärnkontoret receives the Enlightener of the Year award,

“…for their excellent science coverage directed towards children. Hjärnkontoret has aired for 16 years and thus contributed to the upbringing of the entire current generation of students and young scientists at Swedish universities. Thanks to its welcoming format and accessible time slot on public television, Hjärnkontoret reaches out to children of all backgrounds, thus widening and democratising the recruitment of future scientists. Furthermore, the show increases knowledge and appreciation of science among the public at large.”

The Enlightener of the Year receives a cash prize of SEK 25 000 ($3600, €2800).

The Board for the Environment of Mora and Orsa municipalities receives the Obscurantist of the Year anti-award, as it

“… has disregarded scientific knowledge when dealing with so-called electromagnetic hypersensitivity.

Since 2006 the Board has dealt with a complaint including demands that the municipality force cell phone operators to decrease radiation from their antennas. This radiation was said to cause a number of health problems. The Board for the Environment has spent considerable resources on investigating this demand without acknowledging the fact that controlled scientific experiments have never been able to demonstrate any hypersensitivity effects of radio waves. Instead the Board has alleged that the science is uncertain and that a link cannot be excluded. …

People who believe that they are hypersensitive to electromagnetic fields usually experience real symptoms. But there is no scientific support for their interpretation of the cause. Instead, we are usually dealing with a psychosomatic condition. Accepting the sufferers’ interpretation in opposition against scientific medicine is actually a disservice to the people involved.”

See Svenska Dagbladet, Dagens Nyheter, Dagens Medicin, Expressen, SR P4 Dalarna, Mobil.se, Dalarnas Tidningar, Dala-demokraten, Eskilstuna-kuriren, Dalarnas Tidningar again, Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe. I will add links to more coverage as I find them.

Hot Troll/Cow Action in Big One Magazine

i-b922baacb2d7769a04c62023179eb0ad-Bamse.jpg

Bamse magazine is one of Sweden’s most beloved childrens’ publications, with a readership mainly about age 10. Its title character’s name does mean “The Big One”. But still, I must say that I was as surprised as Bamse himself and the squirrel when I saw what that troll is doing with such glee to the cow on the cover. Also, I wonder if those are silicone udders.

The Silly Conventions of Funding a School Trip

Funding trips for classes of school children is a complicated business in Sweden. This is due to two commonly held conventional ideas. One is that it would be unfair to ask each family to simply pay for their kid, since not all families may be able to afford the trip. The other is that the kids should somehow prove themselves worthy of the trip through work. Typically, this will lead to a great number of schemes and events to collect funds for each trip. And these fund-raising activities have a few things in common: they pay poorly, most of the labour is put in by a few parents (not the kids), and most of the collected funds actually originate with the kids’ families, as parents either donate goods or buy donated goods from the kids.

I think this whole business is ridiculous. I challenge the two basic assumptions and I think the fund-raising activities are insanely inefficient.

To begin with, I am in all likelihood the least affluent dad in both my kids’ classes, and it still would be no problem for me to front the bill of their participation in school trips. We live in a cheap part of one of Sweden’s richest communities: these people have the means. Secondly, their kids travel all the time with their folks and sibs without having to work for it, so why should a school trip be any different?

My solution to the problem, which I have aired at a number of school-parent meetings to responses ranging from high praise to shocked disapproval, is this. Dear affluent parent of a school-mate of one of my children: instead of working for five hours on the traditional poorly paid and inefficient resource reallocation schemes, arranging a bake sale or overseeing the kids’ busking at a subway station, just stay one extra hour at work and make twice the money. Nothing you do with the kids on communal fund-raisers will ever approach the wage you see at work every day.

In some cases, school rules forbid the direct payment of a trip fee. This is easy to circumvent. You just buy one cheap item for each kid, say, a pack of candles, and tell the parents that to send their kids on the school trip they have to buy a pack – and it costs $300.

Of course it’s fun for the kids to engage in communal activities with parents, working towards a common goal. But why bring money into it? Just take the kids hiking or fishing.

Is Child Porn In the Eye of the Beholder?

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In issue 2011:1 of Fotografisk Tidskrift, the journal of the Swedish Photographer’s Association, is a fine essay in Swedish by Jens Liljestrand (Twitter @jensliljestrand) about current attitudes to images of children and the definition of child pornography. Before the piece could be printed with the accompanying photographs, the journal’s editor, my friend Jenny Morelli, had to clear its contents with the rights holders, who don’t know Swedish. So she asked me to translate it into English. For reasons of space, the journal then printed a shortened version of the text. Jens Liljestrand and Jenny Morelli have kindly given me permission to publish my full translation here on Aard.


The Sacred Child

By Jens Liljestrand

English translation by Martin Rundkvist

Goa, India, 2009. A shimmering white beach. Clear blue water, a cloudless sky. The rush of waves and a constant din from jet skis. Behind us: rust-coloured sand, skinny cows browsing among trash and dry bushes.

I’m lounging on the sun bed with a mystery novel and keeping half an eye on my three-year-old daughter, who is sitting in pink swimming pants and playing with a bucket and spade. She is blonde, blue-eyed and unbelievably cute. People here stare at her, ensorcelled, love-struck, touching her hair, pointing at her. The other day the restaurant waiter – stoned? – approached and bit her tenderly on her yummy upper arm. And above all, they want to take her picture. In this country headed headlong into the future – the little dirt track back to the hotel that we walked when we arrived a week ago has already been tarred over with asphalt – every Indian seems to have a camera phone. Often they ask me, or more rarely my wife, civilly if they may take a picture. Having been brought up on Swedish school pedagogics, I relay the question to my daughter: “Is it OK for you if they take your picture?” I guess I think it’s her decision.

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