Force Wins Out

On March 23 of this year, two notable things happened.

The first was that I celebrated the anniversary of my birth. My sweetie zaiah and I have been working very hard on the project to remodel our home into a dungeon to host play parties; to help celebrate the occasion of my birth, a lot of friends came over and did a bang-up awesome job of helping us paint the soon-to-be dungeon. It’s still not finished, but we made a lot of progress.

The second thing that happened is that Apple Computer, in apparent response to a petition by a GBLT group, pulled an app by a group called Exodus International from the App Store. And in all honesty, I’m a bit disappointed in the activists who demanded its withdrawal.

Exodus International, in case you have been fortunate enough to avoid these lunkheads so far, is a right-wing Christian organization founded on the premise that through prayer and “spiritual healing” (whatever that is), they can cure people of homosexuality and turn them into nice, normal, inoffensive heterosexuals.

Leaving aside for a moment that there are many people who can shag members of the same sex and then end up in heterosexual relationships–a better term for such folks than “ex-gay” might be “bisexual” or “pansexual,” if one wants to get all semantic about it–the notion that homosexuality is a condition or that it can (or should!) be “cured” is absurd on the face of it.

I don’t much cotton to Exodus International, nor for that matter to any other group that thinks there’s an invisible dude who lives up in the sky who has rules about who you’re supposed to shag or how to do it, and that they have the direct skinny on what those invisible dude’s rules are and how they should be implemented.

But here’s the thing. As odious, offensive, and just plain stupid as Exodus International (the “Exodus” is an exodus from gayhood–get it? Get it? Aren’t they just so clever?) might be–and believe me, if you look at these folks’ Web site, the stupid, it burns–I think the GBLT shot itself in the foot, and in the process showed that some of its members can match the Christian right intolerance for intolerance and deception for deception–by petitioning for its removal.

But first, before I go into why, let me explain something about how the app got approved in the first place. Some noisy but uninformed folks have spouted a lot of nonsense about how Bad And Wrong Apple was to have approved the app in the first place, pointing to how its “unoffensive” rating within Apple’s system showed that Apple is an anti-gay, right-wing establishment.

It’s rubbish. Apple’s second in command, Tim Cook, is arguably the most powerful gay man in all of Silicon Valley. Apple has a long history as a gay-friendly place to work. Apple’s App Store submissions are not, and have not for quite some time, screened by a human being; Apple uses a suite of automated tools to check that apps conform to Apple’s programming guidelines. The Exodus International app was not hand-built; it was built using a pre-existing application framework, one that is used for many other App Store apps. The framework draws its content from a Web site (in this case, the Exodus International Web site); its content was not populated until after the app was approved.

So, no, Apple does not habitually go around approving anti-gay apps. The notion that some person at Apple saw the app and said “Cool! An app by an anti-gay organization; well, let me just put this up on the App Store straightaway, then!” is simply factually wrong.

While we’re on the subject, let’s talk about what the app itself is not.

Shortly after the app came out, a GLBT group calling itself Truth Wins Out put up a petition on calling on Apple to remove the app. The campaign that supported the petition described the app as containing information that was scientifically unsound and potentially dangerous about “reparative therapy,” the notion that homosexuality can be “cured,” and described the app as an “ex-gay app.”

To be sure, reparative therapy is dangerous and scientifically unsound. It’s about as scientifically valid as homeopathy or faith healing, and works about as well.

But that’s not really what the app was. The app was, essentially, a calendar of events and a bunch of Web links.

As such, the content of the app was quite a lot different from what it was claimed to be.

Now, this country has a long, storied tradition of dealing with upsetting, inflammatory, objectionable, or uncomfortable content by banning it. For a society of folks quick to shout “free speech!” whenever someone suggests we ought not say something we want to say, we’re just as quick to shout “ban it!” whenever someone else says something we think they ought not say. It’s a sort of national cognitive dissonance, a hypocrisy that’s woven into the American social fabric.

The gay community has been the target of that “ban it!” impulse for longer than this country was a country. It’s no accident that homosexuality has been described as “the love that dare not speak its name.” So it’s a bit disappointing to me to see the folks who’ve been harmed by the notion that certain ideas should not be discussed being so quick to turn that particular weapon back onto others.

And the fact is, by doing so they committed two wrongs. First, they used tactics that are disingenuous at best. Second, they played right into the hands of Exodus International, a group which the cynic in me suspects wanted to have their app banned.

When I first became aware of the Exodus app, I had read about it on Web sites run by pro-GLBT activists and bloggers. I came away with the notion that the app was a how-to guide for “curing” gays. It wasn’t until I started looking at screen shots and app descriptions–by the time I found out about it, the app had already been removed from the App Store–that I learned its content was considerably different from what I’d been lead to believe.

Whenever I hear someone misstate or overstate an argument against something, that leads me to the conclusion that the person who’s making the argument doesn’t really believe his case to be terribly persuasive. Exaggeration is the tool of first resort for someone who really, really, really doesn’t like something, but who doesn’t think that other folks will share his opinion if it’s stated factually.

And the fact that these arguments were picked up by so many folks suggests to me that a lot of bloggers fell into the same trap that the religious right often falls into–condemning something without actually seeing it. We (and by “we” I mean progressive bloggers, activists, and writers) tend to snigger and laugh at Christians who call for banning a book or a movie and then, when asked if they’ve actually seen it, say “No! Of course I haven’t!” as if their ignorance somehow enhances their moral superiority.

Yet this is precisely what a lot of folks who condemned the Exodus app did. I’d be willing to wager that less than one half of one percent of the folks who condemn it bothered to look at it, and barely more than that even bothered to look at screenshots of it.

That’s pretty dumb. Fact-checking is (or at least ought to be) a basic, basic part of informed activism of ANY sort.

On another forum I read, a lot of folks were hailing the removal of the app from the App Store as a triumph of Libertarianism. I found that notion pretty weird; Apple acts as an absolute regulator of the App Store, with the ability to enforce any rules it chooses about what may and may not be found there.

Now, I am not a Libertarian by any stretch of the imagination. But it seems to me that appealing to an absolute regulator to pass a rule banning a product that you don’t like, for the purpose of ensuring that the product is not available to anyone, is precisely the reverse of Libertarian belief. A more reasonable interpretation of Libertarianism, as I understand it, is that the market itself determines what has value; if folks don’t think the Exodus app has value, they don’t download it. If they do think it has value, they do download it. And in that way, individuals, rather than overarching regulatory authorities, make up their own minds about what has value and what doesn’t.

Which brings up a point that I think is absolutely vital in any pluralistic society: the solution to bad speech is more speech, not less speech.

The fact is, there are people who think that Exodus’ ideas have merit. And those folks don’t go away because the app does! The solution is not to try to control the dissemination of the ideas; that’s a fool’s quest. The solution to bad speech is more speech. Hatred and misinformation thrive in dark places.

I wish–I really, really wish–I had been aware of the Exodus app before pple pulled it down. Do you want to know what I would have done? I’ll tell you.

I would have made an app of my own. My app would have parodied and mocked the Exodus app. It would have lampooned the notions in it. It would have made fun of Exodus International–its ideas, its philosophy, even its lame-ass logo. And it would have provided links to better information about homosexuality.

And you know what I would have done then? I would have sold my app for 99 cents, and I would have donated the proceeds from each sale to a pro-GLBT charity.

If there is one thing that right-wing religious wingnuts can not abide, it’s mockery. Humor is a far more powerful weapon than the banhammer. And frankly, I think that providing funds–as in, actual, real money–to GLBT groups would do a lot more to protect at-risk people, particularly the most vulnerable people targeted by Exodus International–than just removing an app from the App Store would have.

It might’ve gotten more positive press, too.

As it stands now, the GLBT activists have scored a stunning own-goal by playing right into the hands of Exodus International. I really do believe that they expected their app to be banned; c’mon, Apple already has policies against this sort of thing, so it was really just a question of time.

But by creating the petition and making so much noise, the activists have turned themselves into an Exodus photo op. They have allowed Exodus to crank up the press release machinery saying “See? See? Look at these hypocritical gays! They accuse us of intolerance, and then they use distortion and misinformation to advance the Gay Agenda by silencing our voices!” (The fundraising appeal along those lines is already up and running on the Exodus Web site.) And, y’know, it’s kinda hard to argue the point.

Sex for Science! Chapter 0: The Prequel

Sex for Science! Chapter 0
Sex for Science! Chapter 1
Sex for Science! Interlude
Sex for Science! Chapter 2
Sex for Science! Chapter 3
Sex for Science! Chapter 4

The English language has no word to describe the experience of watching a pierced, tattoed woman you’ve only just met have a huge, screaming orgasm, then pull off the electrodes for the EEG machine, roll over, and start talking about sex-based differences in brain activation during sexual arousal.

It has no single word, but there are three: “incredibly fucking hot.”

However, the story that leads up to a sleazy hotel room in Seattle with a laptop, an EEG, and the screaming orgasm I referred to earlier is quite long, and begins in San Francisco, about 809 miles south of that sleazy hotel room. More specifically, it starts (as these sorts of stories often do) with the MacWorld Expo, and also with a book about neuroscience called Mind Wide Open by Steven Johnson.

Personally, I blame my friend Scott, who invited me to drive down with him to MacWorld last January. It’s a straight shot, nine hours by car from Portland, or eleven if you stop along the way for photographs. We opted for the latter, as both of us had brought our DSLRs and he had an infrared filter that he thought might prove interesting. to play with.

Now, I do have to admit that I feel as if Hollywood has let me down. I’ve seen a number of Hollywood movies, so I felt I had a pretty good idea of what to expect from a road trip. You can imagine my surprise, then, when we had been on the road for almost four hours without so much as a single hilarious run-in with bungling bank robbers or Brazilian supermodels. The entire trip offered no bank robbers, amusing misunderstandings involving Homeland Security agents and local sheriffs, Russian gangsters, or international monkey smugglers at all, and only the briefest encounter with a Brazilian supermodel, in a subway station in midtown San Francisco. (That encounter TOTALLY didn’t go the way Hollywood led me to expect.)

It did, though, give us a chance to play with the infrared filter. We stopped at a scenic viewpoint north of Mount Shasta, a nominally dormant volcano in the Cascade mountain range. I took a couple of pictures, one normal and one with the infrared filter, from roughly the same spot. The CCD in my camera is not terribly sensitive to infrared; the normal image was taken at 1/250th of a second at f/13, whereas the IR image was shot at 30 seconds at f/8. I like the way that the infrared light easily penetrates all the haze in the air.

I’m not sure what the light-colored smudges are in the left center and left top of the frame. At first I thought they were artifacts like lens flare, but it’s possible they’re areas of cooler air between the camera and the mountain.

Infrared photography done, we continued down on toward San Francisco, and figuratively speaking toward a date with mad science.

There’s little to say about the MacWorld conference itself. MacWorld has become a bit rubbish over the past decade or so. It used to be one of the hilights of my year every year, but it never quite recovered from the Trade Show Slump of Death. These days, it’s a strange mix of small vendors, a smattering of big-name companies like Hewlett-Packard trying desperately to look relevant, and folks who have little to do with the Mac community at all.

I chatted for a while with a bored Russian goth girl (or she might have been Ukrainian–I still can’t tell the accents apart) at the Data Robotics booth and made fun of the immense New York Times booth, where a small group of old-media dinosaurs struggled to figure out a way to make money on the Web. The expo runs for three days, but we hit everything worth hitting in one longish afternoon.

That night, we were invited out to Porn ‘n’ Cupcakes by lapis_lazuli.

You’d think that porn ‘n’ cupcakes would make for a no-fail evening. As it turned out, the porn was a wash and the cupcakes were Vegan, so overall the Porn ‘n’ Cupcakes experience lack both the erotic titillation and the sweet, sweet sugary excess that one might normally expect from porn ‘n’ cupcakes.

The evening was a smashing success.

In fact, hanging out with lapis_lazuli and her partner was so much fun that I stayed up talking to them after Scott had called it a night, and the next day we played hooky from the expo to run around the city with them and spend a bit of time in the bowels of an old diesel submarine.

There is (or rather, was–they’ve recently announced they’re going out of business) a BDSM-themed coffee shop called Wicked Grounds in San Francisco. They have some very cool furniture, including this rather fetching chair-cum-St.-Andrew’s-Cross thing (which I’d like to build an example of for myself). They also sell copies of my Map of Human Sexuality for sale there, but more to the point, they also have a table that they made by cutting apart one of the posters and laminating it down. Scott, whose photographic skills are considerably better than this image might suggest, got this iPhone pic of me sitting at that table.

We elected to meet up with lapis_lazuli and her partner there, before setting out exploring the bits of San Francisco that aren’t the Moscone Convention Center. There are many of them, as it turns out, and quite a few of them are more interesting than the sad sad remnants of MacWorld.

One of them is the Pampanito, an old WWII-era diesel submarine that’s been turned into a museum.

I think submarines are very cool, in a sort of “I would never, ever actually want to be a crew member on one” kind of way. I have not, however, been inside a submarine before.

lapis_lazuli‘s husband offered to bring us on the tour. It was, I have to say, sexy and fun and kind of a turn-on in a way that porn (badly read) ‘n’ cupcakes (all vegan) were not. Imagine the most primitive steampunk machinery you can, and then bring it kicking and screaming into reality, and you have a WWII submarine. It’s astonishing that these things actually worked.

Take this torpedo tube, for instance.

Shooting things with torpedoes is this craft’s entire raison d’ĂȘtre, but the process of doing that was incredibly baroque. Spin the knob, open the door, slide a torpedo down a rail into the tube, close it up, and then perform a series of arcane acts involving a startling number of levers and knobs and dials and little widgets on the ends of arms that move these hydraulic rams around…it’s amazing the war wasn’t over by the time you’re done. And it’s all made of brass!

The torpedoes themselves, well…

If I understand how they worked correctly, the torpedos burned alcohol for fuel in a burner which was used to heat water to steam. The steam then drove a steam turbine, which was connected by a shaft to a complex mechanical transmission that spun the propellors. A mechanical “computer” of sorts guided the submarine through a programmed series of turns that resulted in the torpedo (hopefully) hitting the target. Subs generally fired while they were on a roughly parallel course with the ship they were shooting at, rather than when they were facing the ship directly; the “firing solution” was the sequence of moves the torpedo would have to go through to catch up with and hit the ship.

Apparently, this actually worked, at least sometimes. It’s amazing what a little bit of ingenuity and nearly unlimited funding can accomplish.

Early submarines were diesel-electric jobs, using two four huge diesel engines (in this case, straight unmodified diesel train engines) to turn enormous electric generators that charged 200 tons of lead-acid batteries stored in the bottom deck of the sub. This control panel was used to control the flow of electricity from the generators into the batteries, and from the batteries into the sub’s engines.

The levers moved gigantic rheostats, basically the same thing as the fan speed controller on your wall only five feet tall and six feet wide, all locked in a giant metal cage to keep crewmen from stumbling into them and going up like a fly in a bug zapper.

I say this again, with increasing astonishment: this actually worked.

Old tech, especially old tech involving huge levers and knobs and dials and stuff, gets me hot.

I include this photo because one day I will have live in a place that has a gray steel box mounted on the wall with a metal label reading “Battle Telephone” on it. With a big gauge and some valves next to it. Oh, yes, I will.

Now this…

This is the control room of the submarine.

It’s a bit less “Hunt for Red October” and a bit more “Someone threw a box full of dials and valves into the room and then bolted them down wherever they landed” than what I had expected. The thing in the foreground, which the camera was actually resting on for this quite lengthy exposure, is the combat table, which is basically a big glass light table that you can draw on with grease pens.

It’s appallingly primitive and beautiful and by the time we were here I was ready to pin lapis_lazuli to the wall and do things to her that are illegal in one hundred and seventeen countries plus the District of Columbia. Did I mention that old tech gets me hot?

All of this still doesn’t explain how I came to be in Seattle with a woman I’d just met who has tattoos of the structural formulas of various neurotransmitters tattooed on her body having a screaming orgasm while wired up to a computer, except perhaps in the sense that it set a baseline for general sexual arousal that would come into play during the trip home.

Which I’ll get to in the next post.