Lessons Learned from a Failed Kickstarter

About a month ago, we began a Kickstarter campaign for Steph’s Are You Kidding? goat birth toy and book. We had high hopes for the project. The toy itself was extremely cute, and it was also unique. Although there have been a couple of “nursing baby” animal toys over the years, there’s never been a plush toy that gives birth. We thought a Momma goat with a couple of babies inside would be a great way to show young kids that birth is both very cool, and a normal, everyday process.

As you know if you were one of our Kickstarter supporters, the campaign failed. We only got to about 20% of our goal. That means no one’s credit card will be charged, and the toy won’t be made (the
book, however, will).

So why did we do a Kickstarter, rather than taking out a loan or saving our money to buy the first batch of 1,200 toys that were the factory’s minimum order quantity? There were a couple of reasons, which may be interesting to people thinking about crowds, social media, and creativity:

1. We created pledge levels and rewards that we thought would tell us what kind of market there was for the actual product. We’ve made the mistake before of getting so excited about a product that we thought
everybody would want one, and then ending up with several thousand we couldn’t sell. The Kickstarter would tell us, we thought, whether there was an actual market for the Are You Kidding? toy.

2. We’ve seen lots of testimonials about the power of crowd-funding, and how social media and Kickstarter are a way for creative people to connect directly with audiences. Successful crowdfunders such as Amanda Palmer have done TED Talks on the subject. So we thought we’d give it a try.

. Before we did the Kickstarter, we tested the water a little on social media, and the excited responses we got to the idea suggested that we wouldn’t have much trouble getting the word out and finding supporters.

So how did these theories test out against reality?

1. The people who supported us most often contributed at the levels ($35 and $50) that would get them either an
Are You Kidding? toy (35%) or a toy and book (34%). That means there was some interest in the toy. Just not enough. We reached less than 100 people who wanted a goat toy – suggesting that if we had gone ahead and placed the factory order, we’d have been left with 1,100 extra toys.

2. Our family and close friends were incredibly generous. And Steph made some good new friends as a result of the Kickstarter. A few people got really excited about the project and pledged or blogged or told all their friends. But on the whole, I think it’s fair to say that the results from social media and Kickstarter itself were much less than we’d expected.

When we chose Kickstarter, we believed we were going with a crowd-funding platform that people understood, and also the one with a big, active user community that would be interested in the project. While it’s clearly true that the project itself was less interesting to folks than we thought it would be, I think we learned a little about the platform.

  • a. The Kickstarter community seems to prefer technology products and very high-profile performance projects. It certainly helps your Kickstarter if you’re making product that appeals to twenty-something guys who shop at Think Geek. Or if you’re a well-known artist like Neil Gaiman or Amanda Palmer, who can appeal to that hipster vibe. We only got about 10% of our supporters from Kickstarter itself. That is, from people who were already part of the community, who were scrolling through the “Advanced Discovery” and “Product Design” pages and found our project. And, although we appreciate the support we got from these complete strangers, it was less significant in terms of the money, as many of these supporters just pledged a dollar or a couple of bucks without choosing a prize.

  • b. The 90% of the supporters who we found ourselves were nearly all brand new to Kickstarter. Most had never used the platform before and didn’t understand it well. 70% or 80% of our supporters were pledging their first campaign. Many were confused about when their credit card would be charged, what a pledge meant, why they were being diverted over to Amazon, etc. It quickly became clear to us that outside a small circle of regular users, Kickstarter is a mystery and crowd-funding itself is still a pretty alien concept. We spent a lot of time explaining why it was an all-or-nothing funding method (the 1,200 piece minimum toy order), and reminding people that if they were interested in giving the toy as a gift this holiday season, the campaign needed to reach its goal. Even after the campaign has ended and Kickstarter has informed people we failed and their cards were not charged, we’re still getting messages from people asking when they’re going to be getting their toys.

3. Social media is a much less powerful tool for generating pledges than we had hoped. We spent weeks networking and getting the word out about the project, on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. While the failure of the project is admittedly mostly about its lack of broad appeal, I think we learned some things about social media:

  • a. There’s a big different between “Liking” and buying. The project received 2,440 Facebook shares, according to Kickstarter. Our own Facebook activity probably resulted in close to 10,000 people being aware of the project. We got thousands of “Likes” and hundreds of positive comments. Many FB communities supported the project and featured it on their own pages. And some of the people who found out about the project became very excited, pledged, and got their friends to pledge. Fewer, though, than we expected. It’s easy to “Like” something on FB. But the act of liking is clearly a lot farther from the act of buying than the FB ad team would like you to believe. It seems that in many cases, a “like” is forgotten about as soon as the button is clicked. It also seems that many people believe that by “liking” something, they’ve done something. This is strange, because it suggests that while a “Like” isn’t enough to get them to buy, people believe their “Like” is something significant.

  • b. Sharing is a less effective influencer than people believe. Several groups became really excited about Are You Kidding? and not only endorsed the project but actively promoted it. Secular Woman, for example, posted articles on FB and their own blog about the toy’s value in normalizing birth, and encouraged their readers to support the project. Several farm and goat oriented groups similarly got behind the project. But all these endorsements only added a couple of names to the list of supporters.

  • c. Paid reach is less effective than “organic.” We wrote a lot of posts, put up videos and news about the project, and even paid to extend the “reach” of the main post announcing the Kickstarter campaign. The paid post reached 5,561 people, according to FB’s “Insight” numbers. These people were supposedly friends of friends, so they were probably similar in interests and thus more likely to be interested in our project than the average population. Only 126 of these people clicked the link that would take them from the ad to the main post. 16 played the video attached to that post. As far as we can tell, none supported the project. My guess is that people are becoming used to FB ads, and simply ignore any content on their screen from people they don’t know. After all, that’s what I do.

  • d. It’s hard to manage a message when you don’t know where the message is going. Steph was very concerned that as time went on, people were going to become turned off by seeing constant posts and updates about the Kickstarter. Since it’s basically impossible to know where FB will let your posts be seen, we had no way of controlling the message. This is partly due to FB’s controversial efforts to transition from free advertising to paid, but breaking a product and then claiming that you’ll fix it for a fee might not be the best way to inspire confidence.

What’s the take-away from all this? Well, for us it was a couple of things:

1. There isn’t enough of a market for a goat Momma with two babies in her. The people who like it,
love it. But there aren’t enough of them to manufacture a product. So Steph has gone ahead and added some pages to the book, showing people how to make their own birthing toys. You can find that here.

2. Kickstarter is best used for tech projects or very hip, high profile performance. There’s a small crowd-funding community whose insiders believe the rest of the world is on the same page with them, when the majority of people really don’t understand it. The artsy, democratic picture painted by advocates like Gaiman is hopeful, but based on a view from the very top of the mountain that is probably only true at those high altitudes.

3. Social media is not an effective way to build a brand, unless you already have a brand. There’s just too much noise, excitement is too divorced from action, and platforms like FB hinder rather than help in finding the right people and getting the message to them.

Audio of Infidel Body-Snatcher

I've been spending a lot of time talking into a microphone, doing video lectures for the course I'm taking. So I thought I'd read the first few chapters of my book, Infidel Body-Snatcher, into the microphone as well. I posted the first results (through chapter 5) here: http://danallosso.net/Freethought/InfidelBody-Snatcher1-5.mp3

Energy Descent

I run a page called American Environmental History on LinkedIn. Another guy in Europe has this page called Environmental History. He posted this link today to a NASA-funded study predicting "irreversible collapse" for industrial society. The study, which I  was planning to use to launch our talk about Energy Descent scenarios in a couple of weeks, is pretty grim, and cites other studies done by academic organizations and even the accounting firm KPMG. Ironically, in the sidebar there's a BP advertisement video claiming we'll be energy independent in 20 years. So we'll probably talk about that, too.


Are You Kidding?

We’ve just launched our Kickstarter campaign for Steph’s goat toy and Steph & Vivi’s storybook. So there’s lots of nervousness, as we wait and see if people beyond our immediate family and friends will like it and support the project. The good news is, the local TV News is sending a reporter over today. So at least we’ll get some video we can post!



So I got this meme in my feed on FB this morning:


I laughed, because strictly speaking it’s true. Teosinte was genetically modified over a period of thousands of plant generations. The resulting plant, Maize, is genetically viable (that is, it will reproduce), but because the kernels are attached to the cob, it requires people to harvest and replant it.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I was bothered by what I thought was the implication and intent of the meme: that people who are anti-GMO are ignorant and their concerns are silly.

There’s certainly different science going on, when you splice a gene from another species into a planet genome to make it resistant to a pesticide. That’s not the same process Mexicans used seven thousand years ago when they created Maize. The thing that really struck me was the heated comment-war that has followed the post of this meme on “I F*cking Love Science” thirteen hours ago. So far, there have been over 82 thousand “Likes,” nearly 21 thousand “Shares,” and nearly 10 thousand comments.

People have gotten pretty ugly in this comment stream. As far as I can tell, Godwin’s Law has not come into play – but I haven’t read every comment, so maybe someone threw Nazis in there when I wasn’t looking. I posted a response-meme and drew a few comments:


It really strikes me that what’s missing in the conversation is historical context. On the one hand, you’ve got a bunch of science-lovers screaming irrationally at the unwashed “organic” crowd. On the other, you have a lot of people who feel something’s not right with this picture, but can’t really pin down the source of their discomfort.

So the question for me is, how best to get some context in front of all these impassioned people?

I am not a gadget

Jaron Lanier is a little older than me. We were born at the boundary between the Baby Boom and Gen X, and that probably colors both our thinking. Lanier has worked for decades in the Silicon Valley, especially in virtual reality and with the types of big systems that run the world: web commerce and financial networks he says are hollowing out America’s middle class as they enrich their owners.

You Are Not A Gadget is Lanier’s first statement on this theme. It was followed in 2013 by Who Owns the Future (which I read first), which sharpened Lanier’s criticism of the damaging effects of Siren Servers and offers a peek at a possible solution. I found this first book slightly more compelling than the sequel, although in general I think both books are on the right track.

Lanier’s main technological point in the first book is the idea of “lock-in,” through which choices once made are very hard to unmake. MIDI, he says, was an ad-hoc solution to an immediate problem. Its subsequent status as the central standard for digital music is unfortunate, because MIDI’s flaws and its keyboard-oriented understanding of musical notes have become institutionalized. The losers are both musicians and listeners — and Lanier believes lock-in creates similar outcomes in nearly all other circumstances.

Programmers and the public, Lanier says, romantically imagine that every app is a new opportunity to build something from the ground up. In reality, his experience with big systems highlights the huge amount of legacy baggage all large projects are saddled with, and how much design and coding simply involves issues like backward compatibility. Based on my own experience in the tech business, I agree. How many generations of Microsoft operating systems were crippled by the need to support the installed base? How many CPU cycles are wasted dealing with software bloat because it’s easier to layer new code on top of old, rather than engage in the reverse engineering required to tear down and rebuild an app? The result, as Lanier says, is that hardware advances at the speed of Moore’s Law, and software pretty much stands still.

Sometimes it takes a special perspective to see the obvious. Lanier says current search is based on a technologically primitive command-line interface. Holy shit! It is. He says Linux is a mash-up of the dinosaur OS, UNIX. Took a lot of heat from that one. But I couldn’t help remembering when I read it, that as much as I wanted to be excited by Richard Stallman’s GNU Project when it first hit the web, I found it deadly dull. The radical promise of the Silicon Valley failed to materialize. Lanier sort-of apologizes:

This is embarrassing. The whole point of connected media technologies was that we were supposed to come up with new, amazing cultural expression. No, more than that—we were supposed to invent better fundamental types of expression: not just movies, but interactive virtual worlds; not just games, but simulations with moral and aesthetic profundity. That’s why I was criticizing the old way of doing things. (131)

He has a point. Silicon Valley visionaries built on the ideas of the 60s to predict the revolutionary ways technology was going to change our lives and save the world. But on the whole they’ve delivered iPhones and supercomputers that can game the financial markets. The biggest project I was involved with at Silicon Graphics put multi-pipe Onxy 2 visualization systems in the New Hayden Planetarium at New York’s Museum of Natural History. It was COOL. But it was a planetarium — an improvement on a working, existing technology. And at the same time, a guy was installing similar multi-million dollar equipment into his penthouse condo, so he could crunch financial numbers. That was new — but that led to 2008.

Of course, failing to deliver the revolution isn’t unique to high technology. And perhaps Lanier is overly romantic about the promise of technology, and also about the value of 60s counterculture. His main cultural point is that we’ve entered a period of stagnation, which he claims is exacerbated (if not created) by the current design of the internet and the enabling of the mash-up.

Computers and the web, Lanier says, make it easier to be derivative and harder to be original. Or at least, they reward mash-ups and fail to provide encouragement for original creative effort. He cites the hollowing-out of the music industry, which he admits was top-down, exploitative, and inefficient before Napster and Kazaa killed it. But at least a musician could make a living. Similarly, Lanier says the “old” internet was once the home of countless pockets of expertise where people posted things that excited them. Many of these sites still exist, he observes, but most haven’t been updated since the advent of Wikipedia. As a grad student, I’ve defended Wiki against the criticisms of what I believed to be old-fashioned faculty who preferred the elitist encyclopedias of old. But I have to admit the Wiki design ideal seems to equate sterility with impersonal truth, and I’m no longer sure whether that makes it an improvement over
Britannica or the Dictionary of National Biography. I’ve actually started acting on Lanier’s suggestion, and looking first at non-Wikipedia results when I google a topic. (fwiw, I also took his advice from Who Owns the Future and started buying printed books again, so the volume I’m quoting from is sitting beside my keyboard, complete with highlights and margin-comments).

“Information,” Lanier says, “is alienated experience.” I think this is one of his oldest insights, probably going back to the days when he was a Neo-Marxist grad student. But he has a point. I don’t have to worry as much about how MIDI has impoverished digital music if I’m picking out the tunes of my favorite new
Le Vent du Nord songs on my fiddle. Part of the solution to the cultural problems he describes may be to turn OFF, tune OUT, and drop back IN to actual experience and creativity. And, as in Who Owns the Future, Lanier’s critique may be overstated because like all Silicon Valley people, he may ascribe slightly too much importance to what happens in our virtual lives. Of course, some of the numbers support him here. Some people are not simply displacing time they used to spend vegging in front of the TV, but are wasting huge amounts of NEW time. We don’t HAVE to be completely determined by our means of consumption OR production. We just have to be conscious — and to that end, You Are Not A Gadget is a valuable wake-up call.


I started reading the Sandman graphic novels again from the beginning, while I’m riding the exercise bike (45 minutes today, plus a grueling XBox Nike workout that seemed a lot longer than 24 minutes!). It’s put the bug in me to write fantasy. I have a story idea that I think would be very fun to write, and hopefully cool to read. I’d thought about writing about this last year, and didn’t get farther than notes. I do think I’ll get to it, when I’ve finished the airship story.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the gulf between professional writers and amateurs, and how digital media is muddying that water. I’m always offended when trade published authors complain that their market is being messed up by all the hacks. Must be similar to the frustration the monks felt when Gutenberg went into business. But seriously, the industry is consolidating, opportunities to attract the attention of big name publishers are getting fewer and farther between, and many “indie” publishers aren’t much more than a funnel to Createspace with a little bit of publicity thrown in, in exchange for the lion’s share of the royalty.

I’ve joined a lot of FB groups related to writing in the last week or so. Still not sure in some of them, what’s really going on. It’s November, which is
NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), so lots of people are posting their daily word counts and planning on finishing a novel in 30 days. I didn’t join, because I’m already halfway into Taking Flight, and because I don’t think I could write a decent novel in thirty days. Outside the Box and Infidel Body-Snatcher both took me at least double that time. If I remember right, I had solid second drafts of each by the end of about 7 weeks of full-time work.

I’m not saying no one can write a decent novel in four weeks. I doubt many people can, though. So what’s the point of NaNoWriMo?

Wait! Hang on, don’t misunderstand me: I think it’s a really cool thing! I just checked the count: they’re up to 283,912 people who’ve signed up to write. It doesn’t cost anything to join, so many of those folks may just be expressing the
HOPE that they’ll write a novel in November. But there’s no reason not to assume that thousands, or even tens of thousands, or maybe even a hundred thousand people are going to actually try really hard to do it. And many will succeed.

Maybe that effort will result in someone completing the first draft of what will become a really good book. Chances are, a lot of writers will get a lot better at their craft, whether or not this particular project is their breakthrough. Whether or not they even want to “break through” and publish something that’ll allow them to quit their day job. And there’s no question that a huge number of people will gain a new appreciation of what it takes to write a novel. That’ll make their reading experiences more rewarding, which will encourage them to read
AND write more.

I’m really excited about this last bit: the growth of a new population, situated between the old groups of Writers and Readers. Readers who write. Why the heck not? People all over the world do art. They paint, throw pots, build stuff, play instruments. Why shouldn’t there be just as many writers? Somebody once said “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” Yes, I know who, but it isn’t important. The point is that writing expands the world. So let’s get to it!

My Top Ten

As I was falling asleep — actually, instead of falling asleep — a few nights ago, I started trying to think of the top ten books that really influenced me as a kid. The ones that made me love stories and want to tell stories. The period I’m thinking of when I say I was a kid is from about 1970 to 1978. In 1970, I think I was in the third grade and began reading Lord of the Rings. Maybe it was ’71. I’ve listed the books as I remember them, not in the order I read them. For example, I’m sure I first read Demian when I was very young, and then came back to it many times. I read Asher Lev in High School, and wrote my AP English essay on it in ’78 or early ’79. I’m really not sure when I first read Dune — it might be the one book I’m wrong about, that I read later in college.

So here they are, in the order I remembered them:

J.R.R. Tolkien,
The Lord of the Rings

Ursula K. Leguin,
The Earthsea Trilogy

Arthur C. Clarke,
The City and the Stars (aka "Against the Fall of Night")

Chaim Potok,
My Name is Asher Lev

Gordon R. Dickson,
The Dorsai Trilogy

Frank Herbert,

A.E. Van Vogt,
The Weapon Makers of Isher (and all its various revisions and sequels)

Edith Hamilton’s

Robert Heinlein,
Time Enough for Love

Herman Hesse,

The list surprised me a bit. It's much heavier in fantasy and science fiction than I would have guessed before doing this exercise. Interestingly, there’s no YA literature on the list. Terry Davis (who’s not much older than me) didn’t launch the genre by publishing
Vision Quest until 1979, and then I didn’t read it until after seeing the movie in the ‘80s. There’s also no classic literature. I read classics, of course. I went to school, and my Dad was an English teacher. I remember liking David Copperfield, and also how long it took to read. I read the Junior Great Books and a lot of the senior series too. If there’s one piece of literature I’d include, it’s Faulkner’s short story, “The Bear.” But I didn’t study them the way I studied Tolkien’s appendices. I mean, I knew the first and second age history cold before the Silmarillion ever came out. I nearly learned to speak Elvish! Or at least I could (and still can) recite poems like "A Elbereth Gilthoniel" the same way J.R.R. himself spoke the words on a record of Poems and Songs from Middle Earth.

Of course, I read just about everything else by the authors listed above, except
Stranger in a Strange Land and Magister Ludi. Not sure exactly why. Everyone has gaps… I do remember liking Narcissus and Goldmund, and also Knut Hamson’s novel Pan. But by then I was in High School, and the formative period was probably over.

New Book Project

I'm posting a little less frequently right now, because I'm in the middle of writing of a novel I've been thinking of for a long time. It's a science fiction story set in a future plagued by peak oil and climate change. The protagonists live on airships. Taking Flight, the first book in what I think will be a trilogy, will be out before yearend. Info about it will appear from time to time here.


Chipotle Hits a Raw Nerve

The New Yorker posted a strange article the other day called "What does 'The Scarecrow' Tell Us About Chipotle?" This is the least intelligent, nuanced discussion of Ag. and Food issues I've read in a long time.  The author doesn't even get the ironic (but still hopeful) use of the haunting song, "Pure Imagination," which was an excellent choice:

If you want to view paradise
Simply look around and view it
Anything you want to, do it
Wanta change the world?
There's nothing to it

The article is flawed, but its flaws are VERY telling.  The title should probably have been, what does our reaction to Chipotle's video "The Scarecrow" tell us about our own lurking anxieties regarding our food supply?

Chipotle has clearly hit a raw nerve.  Hopefully the author and New Yorker readers will begin to make an effort to understand the issues.  The article notes several positive changes Chipotle has tried to make in the way they acquire the ingredients for their burritos. But the overall tone remains very negative. Why aren't they doing more? Why aren't their results verified by an independent authority (answer, because there isn't one)? And, finally, why are they still using -- gasp! -- animals in making our food? I suppose that's a legit question, given the fact that most Americans probably eat more meat than they need to. Vegetarians have every right to point out that animals are still killed to make burritos.  The harder part is, we meat eaters need to come to grips with the way our meat is raised, killed, and processed.  Understand it, and then if you can't support (and understanding it, who could?) the process that results in a "billions-served" hamburger, STOP eating them.  

We've been lucky this year (and we've worked hard), and we have a freezer filled with lamb, turkey and chicken we raised and harvested ourselves. So we know they had a good life, running around on the grass under the sunshine, and we know they died as humanely as possible. I can live with that.

Heavy Metal

You can find history in the most unlikely places. The blacksmith I worked with in New Hampshire had a small collection of Hay Budden anvils, and some interesting stories to tell about the breakup of the Hay Budden company in Brooklyn. Got me thinking about anvils and anvil-making. People in the trade know Hay Budden, but how many regular folks have ever heard of them, or wondered about who made these big pieces of metal that were once seen everywhere and are now seen nowhere but in "colonial village reenactments" (which is where I first picked up a hammer). Here's a video of some people working really hard to make an 82 pound anvil using modern tools; it had to be pretty tough making a 160 pound Hay Budden in the nineteenth century! Someday, that would make an interesting study…

Every Day I'm Shovelin'

I’ve got a lot of projects going. Starting a YA group blog with my friend Terry, writing a sequel to my first YA novel, Outside the Box, writing a sci-fi novel, writing a historical novel, and (the thing some folks would accuse me of putting off…) writing a PhD dissertation. I try to keep all these projects moving forward, jumping back and forth between them in a fairly orderly sequence. It’s more than enough to keep me busy, and I like the variety. I could really be sitting at my desk all day long, every day. But I’m not.

I spent a couple of hours this morning, just prior to coming in to write this, shoveling manure. We live on a small farm — what midwesterners would call a “hobby farm.” But it’s serious enough. We raise goats for milk and sheep, turkeys, chickens and rabbits for meat (yeah, that's a lot of manure!). We also get at least a dozen eggs a day from a batch of hens (who we
don’t eat), and fresh vegetables from the garden. The idea is to know where our food is coming from and what went into it, and to be as self-sufficient as possible. We’re not veteran farmers; it’s learn-as-you-go. Someday I’ll probably write about that, too!

So I split my time between farm work and writing. Today I was shoveling composted manure into a new forty-foot-long raised bed I’m building next to the barn wall. I’m going to cover the compost with soil and fill the bed with strawberry plants. When I’m done with that project, I need to build a few more raised beds for fall planting and next year. I also need to fence in a couple of pastures, haul four cords of firewood into the woodshed, and build a little house for the rabbits before winter.

There’s something to be said for manure. One of the most memorable lines from literature, for me, is “that is horsepiss and rotted straw. It will calm my heart.” James Joyce, from
Portrait I’m told, although I thought it was from Dubliners. And there’s something to be said for getting away from the desk and doing physical labor. Mike Rowe, the famous host of Dirty Jobs, is on a mission to remind Americans that work is a good thing. He has a website devoted to it and presented his ideas to the Silicon Valley elite in a Ted Talk back in 2008. I think there are two important messages, even for people who end up making their livings in the “information economy.” First, the physical world is still out there, and people who do the work that makes our comfortable lives possible should be respected and fairly compensated. Second, we should probably all spend some time doing the heavy lifting. Not just once when we’re young, but regularly and forever. To keep it real.

Living on the Grid

Hey, is it just me, or does the new “tile” personal rf tracking product seem like the just about the weirdest opportunity to opt into a permanent 24x7 surveillance society?

The product is a little, attractive piece of plastic that you can attach to things. Inside is an RFID device that will communicate over short-ranges with your smartphone, to tell you, for example, where you left your keys. It even has a little chirpy speaker, so it can call to you when you get close. Okay, cool — that could be useful.

But it
also can connect to anyone else’s tile searcher app. And not just by accident. This is a feature. It means that when someone steals your computer, bike, car that has a tile on it, the tile will communicate with any smartphone nearby, and send a “discreet” message to your phone. Discreet is the word they used in the video, I think. I take it to mean in the background, without the knowledge or active participation of the smartphone’s user.

Let that sink in for a minute. By joining the “tile community,” your phone becomes a relay that communicates with any tile nearby, and transmits that tile’s location to an authorized user. If the tile community actually takes off, that means anything or anybody wearing a tile becomes a trackable object. Trackable by whom? Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?

I’m not going all conspiracy theory, enemy-of-the-state here. I’m not concerned about the government knowing where I am — at least, not yet. But connect this with
Jaron Lanier’s idea of siren servers, enriching a small group of elite people using the data we generate in our daily lives. Connect it with Eli Pariser’s idea of the filter bubble, where what we are able to see on the web becomes increasingly limited to what the elite servers want us to see, based on profiles generated using this personal data. Can’t you just see a siren server like Amazon or Walmart offering these things FOR FREE, but including in the license agreement that they get to keep a record of your movements? Because, remember, although you’ll only be using it in the present, to find your lost keys, the record of where the thing has been lasts forever out there on the cloud.

So think twice.

MN atheists annual conference

It’s quarter past ten (last night), and I’m back in my hotel room after fourteen hours of conferencing (which followed four hours of driving).  It’s been a long day!
The conference was actually really good!  I missed about half of the first talk and skipped the lunch, so I could spend some time with my friend
Terry Davis, who drove up from Mankato.  Haven’t seen Terry in about six years, so that was really good.  We talked about a couple of things we might do together to get an online conversation started about YA writing.  More on that as it develops.
The conference program was really well put together.  Originally, Susan Jacoby had been scheduled to give the keynote, but she was unable to come.  In her place, MN Atheists had
Annie Laurie Gaylor, who in addition to being a co-founder and co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), is a freethought historian who has written a couple of books, including Women Without Superstition, an anthology of the writing of women freethinkers from the 19th and 20th centuries.  She talked about the FFRF’s work, and suggested that we need to sweat the small stuff, because if we let it pass it just leads to bigger and bigger stuff.
Greta Christina talked about coming out as an atheist, which I found very interesting, partly because telling people I’m a nonbeliever is not something that’s really ever caused me much stress or difficulty.  But then, I’m a middle class white guy.  My job, home, lifestyle, etc. aren’t really at the mercy of anyone who could penalize me for my beliefs, which makes me feel very privileged.  She said something really interesting about the difference between coming out gay and coming out atheist, which hadn’t occurred to me.  When you come out gay, she said, you aren’t telling the person you come out to they’re wrong to be straight.  But when you come out atheist, you’re pretty much telling the religious person you come out to that you think they’re wrong.  So in a sense, that can be a greater challenge.
PZ Myers didn’t give a talk, but he had some interesting things to say on the final panel, which was about confrontation vs. accommodation.  The panel discussion was focused mainly on how atheists relate to believers (and even included a believer: a local Unitarian minister who is active in local reproductive freedom activism), but afterwards a few of us stuck around at the table and the discussion went toward the issues that atheists seem to be at war over within the movement.  Mostly, these issues seem to be about the push by people who think atheists should be working for social justice, and push-back from those who don’t think that rejecting religion implies what might be called a liberal or progressive (or even maybe radical) political agenda. 
While it’s technically true that a-theism is a negative position, I think that practically it’s more than that.  Since religion is really the only argument propping up a lot of really regressive attitudes and policies (the inferiority of women, reproductive freedom, sexual orientation – even, historically, slavery!), rejecting religion does remove the only support from these ideas.  If you’ve rejected religion but you still believe women are inferior, for example, then it’s all on you, dude. 
So really, it makes sense that there’s an expectation that rejecting religion entails accepting equality and tolerance.  Which means not supporting social structures that perpetuate the inequality and intolerance caused by religion.  Which basically means, a radical or at least progressive politics. 
It’s too much to expect all atheists to agree on a particular party platform.  It’s probably not even desirable – and it’s not as if other groups are all homogenous on political and social priorities.  But it's more than fair to insist on some basic minimal standards.  This is the 21
st century, after all.   

Was the American Revolution a Holy War? Really??

This morning I made a quick tour of some of the places on the web I pay attention to. The Historical Society’s blog had several interesting pieces on it, and a “Roundup” of American Religious History featuring several articles that have recently appeared — mostly in the popular press. One of them was a Washington Post article called “Was the American Revolution a Holy War,” by James P. Byrd, who teaches American History out of the “Divinity School and Graduate Department of Religion” at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. (Notes: Yes, Vanderbilt IS named after the Commodore, who endowed the school in 1873. It's a private research university with undergrad, graduate and professional programs that attract about 12,000 students. Some of Byrd’s courses include “Religion, Slavery, and the Civil War,” “Religion and War in american History,” and “American Apocalyptic Thought and Movements.”)

Washington Post article claims the American people’s belief that “We are, it seems, one nation under God after all,” can be traced to our very beginning. From his perspective, the Christian Nation “began with the American Revolution. When colonists declared their independence on July 4, 1776, religious conviction inspired them. Because they believed that their cause had divine support, many patriots’ ardor was both political and religious. They saw the conflict as a just, secular war, but they fought it with religious resolve, believing that God endorsed the cause.” This is apparently the thesis of his 2013 book, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War, which carries the imprint of the Oxford University Press.

The article prompted nearly five hundred comments on the
Post’s website. The most popular one begins, “This guy is a history professor?” That’s an interesting question in itself, so I’ll digress to it for a moment. Byrd is a faculty member of the Divinity School, not the History Department at Vanderbilt. The History Department (based on its website) seems to offer a typical assortment of courses. The only Religious History offering I noticed was an elective called “Religion and Politics in South Asia.” But in addition to Byrd, seven other faculty members of the Divinity School list “Historical Studies” as their area of specialty. So I think it’s fair to ask, when we talk about Religious History as a broad field and argue about “Confessing Historians” in the Academy (and even more-so in Popular History), what type of training do these “Historical Studies” specialists have? How does it compare with a PhD in History? And how does their obvious FAITH affect their ability to do history? Byrd’s Post article, for example, doesn’t treat “God” as a concept (defined differently by different people in their individual cultural contexts, contested by nonbelievers, etc.), but almost as someone Byrd knows personally and expects his readers to understand in the same way he does.

Which brings me back to my main point about the article and my main issue with Religious History. Byrd asks the wrong question in the article’s title. OF COURSE the Revolution was a Holy War FOR SOME PEOPLE. Just as obviously, it WASN’T for many others, who fought for their political rights, for their economic privileges, or for a variety of other reasons. And there were even some anticlerical folks who saw the fight as a chance to sweep away religious as well as political tyranny.

So the question should have been, “For WHOM was the American Revolution a Holy War?” Historians ought to be more active in this discussion, and ought to push through the fog created by folks like Byrd when they privilege their own point of view, and cast it back into history. For them, “Americans” are the people who saw it their way, just as “God” is the supernatural being THEY pray to. Historians, especially Historians of Religion, should be more vocal about making this distinction. Some Historians of Religion I know are critical of this approach — although I'd be happier if they were more public about it, and didn't limit their criticism to academic venues most
Washington Post readers will never see. We might want to publicly examine the historiography of the “Holy War thesis,” and understand when, how, and why academic and popular historians have advanced this interpretation of the Revolution. We might even want to ask ourselves what it means when a group of people privilege their perspective and try to pass it off as American History — and what actual Historians ought to do about this.