Archive for the ‘gender follies’ category

And the Internet Shall Make Us Free, Gender Equity Division

August 12, 2014

I have a friend in the science writing game (many actually; I’m a wealthy man that way).  This particular friend has built a career out of writing about physics, mostly, along with a bit of math,* all with a truly distinct style, voice, and stance.  The work begins from the true premise: physics and the habits of scientific thinking penetrate (or should) every aspect of experience.  Science ain’t just for the boffins — it’s of value and available to anyone willing to crack a book and wind their brain.

My friend has lots of strengths as a writer, full stop, and as a writer about science.  It’s not just the catchy and earned interplay the work achieves between popular culture and real scientific concepts.  What I love as I read books and articles from my friend is the way each piece is built experientially.  The ideas emerge as the narrative voice lives, does actual stuff (road-trip to Vegas! drop acid! check out the rides at Disneyland!).  This is a writer who wants readers to feel their new knowledge down to the bone.  And to have fun with it while they’re at it.

So my friend put out a book a couple of years ago that showcases all this fine writerly stuff on a topic that doesn’t usually make most folks’ lists of beach reading.  Titled The Calculus Diaries it tells the story of what happens when a fully grown adult — a former English major –sets out to master calculus,  both for the beauty of the math involved and to discover its power as a  guide to just about whatever one may encounter in daily life.

My friend has lots of friends, as it happens, many of whom we share.  One of those was talking to yet a third party a few nights ago, and told that person about the book.  The next day, some of the details had vanished, as they are wont to do.  And so this last person in the chain did what anyone would:  ask the magic Google machine to find that tome about the English major who decided to learn calculus.

Then this happened:

Screen Shot 2014-08-11 at 5.14.25 PM

Oops.

Or rather, what’s telling is that plenty of folks are pissed off at the Google-bot’s assumption here, but no one, I think, is even remotely surprised.  Ben Lillie — the man behind Story Collider, by the way — is the person who told McManus (whom I don’t know) about The Calculus Diaries, by Jennifer Ouellette, possibly also known to some of you as Jen-Luc Picard, proprietress of Cocktail Party Physics.

La_Leçon_d’astronomie_de_la_duchesse_du_Maine_-_François_de_Troy

Ben wrote up a lovely post for his Tumblr on all this, with at least two motives behind the writing, both of which I share.

One is simply to make sure that our mutual friend Jennifer gets all the credit she deserves for having written a wonderful tale and guide-for-the-math-perplexed that I believe serves as a great gateway drug to really important mathematical ideas.  Also, maybe, this’ll help sell some  books.

The other is to use this bit of search-algorithm-“optimization” to cast the obvious sidelight on the fact of embedded sexism in tech — and really society at large.  That pathology is easy to see when you get dudebros making obvious and public tools of themselves.  But (and of course you see this in the way racism persists) when you set the non-sexist/racist/bigot/asshole bar at the level of not being that guy, not using the c word or the n word, or what have you, the deep social and cultural conditions in which actual racism, sexism, discrimination makes itself felt don’t get touched.  Ben wrote a line I can’t beat on this theme:

One of the wonderful things about relying on computers to help us is that if we’re not careful they’ll tell us who we really are.

And so they do.  And what this one little story means as a practical matter is that as long as the assumption that men do math and women don’t runs so far below the surface that even the Google breathes it back at you….then that’s how you know the war on women, like plenty of other battles, ain’t close to over.  La lucha continua, as we used to say.

Discuss — and go buy some books.

*There’s been a recent detour into mind-brain stuff, but we all have our briar patches, don’t we?

Image: François de Troy, Astronomy Lesson of the Duchess du Main, 1702-1704

Tonight! ‘Net Radio: Me and Eileen Pollack on “Why Are There Still So Few Women In Science”

March 12, 2014

That’d be my regular monthly gig co-hosting Virtually Speaking Science, tonight, Wednesday March 12, 6 p.m. ET/3 p.m. PT.

Eileen Pollack is now a professor at the University of Michigan, teaching in the creative writing M.F.A. program there.  She’s a celebrated novelist and writer of short fiction, essays, and what is called (alas, in my view — and not her fault) “creative” nonfiction.  You can get hold of her works here.  All in all, hers is an enormously impressive record of a life in letters, of worlds made in words.

Eileen Pollack in 1978 was someone quite different (weren’t we all…) That spring, she graduated from Yale with highest honors in physics — only the second woman in the history of the university to complete that major.  What happened to take someone who was, on the accolades, one of Yale’s most accomplished undergraduate physicists, and turn her to a radically different path?

Pollack answered that question and raised another one in her New York Times Magazine article “Why Are There Still So Few Women In Science?” published last October.  In her case, no one told her she might have a shot at a career in math or physics.  So, as conditioned by her context’s views on female capacity and the maleness of science as any of the male professors who never thought to encourage her, she gave up the joy she found in equations and the ideas they expressed, and moved on.

So far hers is a sorrowful but not unfamiliar story.  The history of barriers to entry in science is a miserable one, but not unknown.  But Pollack’s curiosity — and more — flared in 2005, when then Harvard president Larry Summers mused about a possible biological deficit — at least when it comes to the extremes of mathematical capacity — might explain why men so outnumber women in the physical sciences.  Pollack is gentle with Summers himself, whom she’s known for decades , but the controversy created a need to know the answer to the underlying issue.  It’s a fact that there are many more men than women hold positions in the upper echelons of scientific research.  But why?

Joseph_Wright_of_Derby_-_Experiment_with_the_Air_Pump_-_WGA25892

Pollack’s article, and the book that will emerge from her enquiry, engage that question, and the explanations she’s coming to are at once depressingly reminiscent of her own story, and extend them, to account for the persistence of cultural and social bias even when (a) formal discrimination is prohibited by law and (b) members of a community — like physics departments — pride themselves on their ability to separate emotion and unconscious impulses from the exercise of reason.

In other words:  being smart is no protection against hidden biases, or even against accepting the evidence of bias when rigorously documented…and the revolution isn’t won yet, not by a long shot.

Pollack and I will be talking about all that, the whys the wherefores, and some thought as to what it will take to turn formal commitments to gender equity (and by extension, equity for the whole host of relevant modifiers) into actual practice, the simple fabric of society.

Join us!  Live or later here.  Or, if you are virtually real, at the Exploratorium’s Second Life joint — 6 p.m. this evening, March 12, 2014.

Image:  Joseph Wright of Derby, Experiment with the Air Pumpc. 1768

What the Duck?

June 28, 2013

Following the various links and threads evoked by Anne Laurie’s awesome bit of cultural anthropology over at Balloon Juice, I stumbled on the LGM comment party that ultimately led to…

Wait for it…

This:

S53M

I mean…

What?

I have no words.*

The LGM swarm has already had its way with this image.  Your turn.

*Just kidding. It’s me, remember.

Two thoughts:

1: I’m really not sure that these shut-ins fully grasp the concept of the carnivore.**  Or maybe mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Whatever…if whoever drew that sees the kiss that way, I pity his/her partner(s).

2: Speaking of drawing.  As one of the commenters over at LGM pointed out, that ain’t no photoshop. Someone carefully took implement in hand and chose every line and shade.  I admire that.

Update: As many suspected, this is hoch-snark. The original images come from a 2010 series of drawings called “Summer of Love” by Saiman Chow.  The fox-on-man image has had a prior moment in the sun as cover art for Ariel Pink’s single, Round and Round.

I don’t know if Chow put this panel together — if he did, kudos!  If not — props to the so-far anonymous ridicule-meister.

**obviously, given the provenance, can’t blame the shut-ins here. Apologies to anyone for whom that particular offense rises above all the ridicule embodied in that image.

Unclear on the Concept

June 3, 2012

From today’s Times story on gender discrimination in Silicon Valley:

“If you believe every allegation in the complaint, it’s appalling and an important window into how the valley works,” Mr. [David A.] Kaplan said. “But I’m somewhat skeptical. The clichés you hear in the valley are about the pranks, the obsessiveness, the Foosball tables. You don’t really hear about randiness and mistreatment of women. That doesn’t prove it’s not there, but that’s not the lore.” [Emphasis added]

Uh, Mr. Kaplan.  You might want to think on that.

Let me help.

Consider this analogy:. Let’s say there’s a cult of cannibal WASPs in San Francisco who decide that they need to eat actual human body parts to fully take part in communion. (Why yes, I am rereading my Armistead Maupin.  Why do you ask?)

Do you reckon that fact will become part of the lore at Grace Cathedral?

I think not.  The first rule of Fight Club and all that.

Out of the realm of fiction,  the reality of embedded discrimination is that it does not form part of the “lore.”  It’s in the water, the air, so pervasively integrated into the daily life of whatever community in which it is embedded that no one need and very few recognize its existence — at least among those on the winning side.  How many white southerners in 1950 perceived the daily reality of their lives to be one that benefitted from the systematic oppression of their African-American neighbors?  Some, but it wasn’t part of the lore; it was just an unexceptionable fact.

So too with gender.  Example close to home:  until the 1999 report on  Women Faculty in the School Science at MIT, male faculty and leadership at the Institute were not in general aware of the conditions under which their female colleagues worked.  Here’s then-MIT President Charles Vest, introducing the report:

First, I have always believed that contemporary gender discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception. True, but I now understand that reality is by far the greater part of the balance. Second, I, like most of my male colleagues, believe that we are highly supportive of our junior women faculty members. This also is true. They generally are content and well supported in many, though not all dimensions. However, I sat bolt upright in my chair when a senior woman, who has felt unfairly treated for some time, said “I also felt very positive when I was young.”

Thus, when David Kaplan– in all sincerity, I’m sure — suggests that a charge of sexual harassment is implausible because the Valley’s oral tradition does not speak of it, the best response I can give is:

Dude, please.  Listen to yourself.*

*BTW — to belabor what should be obvious.  Just because someone makes a clueless statement like Kaplan’s, it does not follow that the specific charges in the Pao-Kleiner, Perkins dispute are true.

D’uh.

Image: Thomas Eakins, Study for Taking the Count, 1898.

Ford’s Theater — or how not to photograph little girls.

January 6, 2011

This is a repost of something I put up at Balloon Juice last night–and that I then added to after reading the comment thread there this morning. Check that thread out here if you want to see the context for the second half of the piece.

Update:  I’ve attached a belated follow-up to the very thoughtful comment thread below the jump. Thanks to all who contributed to that thread, and apologies for taking this long before returning to the discussion.

Via my friend, science writer (The Carbon Age) and twitterer Eric Roston (@eroston) I just learned of the Tom Ford-edited issue of French Vogue featuring fashion-porn pictures of female child models.*

The girls are real children — one is said to be six years old — presented in the clothes, makeup and poses that suggest the sexual agency and availability of much older women.

Beyond a kind of weary sorrow/rage at the thought that someone’s going there yet again, the pictures crystallized for me the feeling that’s been taking shape all week as I’ve thought about Ross Douthat’s now well-covered foolishness in his recent column on adoption and abortion.

Lots of people (see my last post on this for a very partial selection of links) have pointed out the obvious about that piece. Recall that Douthat’s “argument” was that evil of abortion could be seen in the way it constrains the supply of  livestock babies sought by wealthy child-poor couples.  That’s a view that instrumentalizes both (poor) women and the children they are supposed to produce to satisfy that family-acquisition impulse.  The mothers and their infants become means to others’ ends.

Ford and Vogue make similar use of their subjects.  The girls, dressed and made-up in haute hooker chic, are toys — dolls, really — onto which a viewer is supposed to project … whatever.

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Those photographs suggest erotic presence, but they depict kids, after all, and in these images, like the babies and women Douthat would bend to the service of other women, those children cease to be actual individuals.**  Instead, they become blank canvases on which others paint their own aims and desires, with the requisite ugly twist on the word, “desire.”

The bottom line?  To put it in the syntax of Jeopardy,  I’d ask:  “What is the fact that both Douthat and Ford/Vogue think it’s OK to diminish the people that are women and or children into anonymous, interchangeable objects”  And with that I’d win the category that answers:

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Things that are not right.

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I’ll close with a bit of science fiction geekery.  A long time ago I read what still seems to me one of the best of dystopic visions of our commodified and manipulated future, John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider. It holds up remarkably well, and in my own idiosyncratic sequencing of such things, it seems to me that it should be thought of as one of the founding texts of cyberpunk.

Brunner’s story can be read as a kind of pilgrim’s progress, in which more than one character is coaxed to the realization that (in my bad, from-memory paraphrase of the book’s ending) the operational definition of the concept of evil was the use of another human being as a thing.

That notion is the source of my disgust with Douthat, and my loathing for whatever it was that passed for thought in Ford/Vogue‘s decision to peddle some kiddie porn.

And as for what I’d do about it?

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This, of course.  I’m a free speech fundamentalist, or pretty close to it, and I believe that the best response to grotesque speech is to point out its wens and warts, which I have here tried to do.

And on that cheerful note…goodnight, y’all.  Better dreams.

*The link is to BoingBoing, through which you can dive as deep as the ‘net lets you now into this particular wading pool.

**In case it’s not obvious, can I say here that the issue is not with the idea of fashion photography and/or erotic tensions and meanings in images.  It’s the six year old problem: the fact that little kids do not possess the agency to figure out whether the process of being turned into any particular image is OK by and for them.  Clear?  (Obviously, there is a lot more to think and say here, but it’s late, and this is a blog post, not a monograph…and this is why we have comment threads.)

Image: Dirck van Baburen, The Procuress, 1622.

First — thanks to all.  I spat this out in haste last night, and it describes a reaction more felt than thought, and the comment thread offers the corrective I hoped it would to what I think is my incoherence.

Most important, I realize I didn’t think all the way through the argument.  I agree with those who’ve pointed out that Ford =/ Douthat, and for that matter, pictures of little girls in age-inappropriate costumes and poses =/ baby brokering.  If there is a link — and I think there is, still, it is that both Douthat’s writing and Ford’s images reduce women and girls to attributes.  But still, I think that what I was trying to say could have been better said with a focus on the Vogue spread itself.

There, as a number of commenters pointed out sexualized images of child models have a history (see e.g. Mike Kay at comment 15) — and as J. Michael Neal points out at number 5 and Debbie does at comment 55, Ford may very well be attempting critical comment on that history and on the habits of fashion photography.

But that still doesn’t resolve my sense of dread as I look at this pictures, and I think that reaction derives from two interwoven thoughts.  The first is that objects like these photos shape social relations.  I look at these photos and see this:  to be female, of any age, is to be an object, a vessel for other’s desires and intentions.  I recognize that there are other ways to interpret what’s going on here– but it is the kiddiness of the images that tip the balance for me.

The second is that context matters.  The spread’s presence in Vogue cuts both ways.  Given who reads that pre-eminent women’s book, the notion that this is criticism carries weight, as I’m not sure how much an audience of couture-fascinated women are going to see six year olds playing dress-up as objects of desire.  On the other hand – these kids are selling stuff, clothes and style, and it is the leap from stuff to selves that makes me very queasy.

I don’t know how many of you have read Andrew Vachss.  His novels – I’ve only read ones in the Burke series – center on horrific stories of child abuse and worse.  He emphasizes over and over again what should be obvious:  children don’t have agency when adults sexualize them.

That’s what makes me very, very wary of  even well made, ironic, fashion-tradition hedged images like the one’s here.

So, in response to all the well-thought criticism of what may be an unfair juxtaposition of Ford and Douthat, I think the commenters who point to the real differences between the two are onto something, and if I were to write this piece again, I’d focus just on what bothers me with these pictures, rather than trying to tease out this comparison.

I’m older than I once was, as Paul Simon says.  Fifty two and counting.  I have a young kid of my own.  I can imagine (though not really remember) myself as a twenty-something journalist in New York thinking that Ford’s images (Calvin Klein’s back then, actually) were pure transgressive art, full stop.  (I never bought into Douthat’s intellectual pathology, thank FSM.)  But I’m not that mostly notional young pup any more, and for all that I can see the artfulness in those photographs, I can’t get over my sense that these pictures help us make strangers of each other — and of the most vulnerable among us.

Not My Usual Patch…but this line brought back such fond memories

October 21, 2009

2nd Update: I realize I wasn’t being entirely clear. What’s striking about Siskind’s nonsense is not simply its content, wild enough, but that she wrote this not in the heat of the election and/or its immediate aftermath, but this month, after the spectacular melt down of whatever remained of temporary-Governor Palin’s plausibility. That’s what made Siskind’s doubling down so engrossing, in the same way one can’t look aside from a seven car pileup in the next lane.

_________________

Led to the astonishing (I’m in my first-cup of coffee glow, still, hence the politesse) Amy Siskind by Steve M., I chanced to bask in the glory of this line:

“I am a lifelong Democrat who for the first time in my life voted Republican in the 2008 elections. I did this for one reason: McCain selected a woman as his running mate.”

Has Ms. Siskind forgotten that Samantha Bee had nailed this argument long before?

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Not My Usual Patch…but this line br…“, posted with vodpod

Has Ms. Siskind really concluded that there is no bar so low that she would choose chromosomal complement over any judgment of fitness for the job?

Does she really, in this October of our discontents actually think that the Sara Palin of fact, rather than form and fantasy, would as Vice President allow her to sleep soundly at night?

If so, I’m impressed.

Horrified, but impressed.

That is all.

Update: It seems to me that Siskind is an example of what DougJ correctly excoriates as the jackass quality of high-Village contrarianism.  Siskind is a dull writer (not terrible, just not capable — or interested, perhaps — in delivering any pleasure in her use of language); she’s a deeply pedestrian analyst (Palin trumps Obama because he merely celebrated the NCAA women’s basketball champs, whilst she actually played XX chromosome prep ‘ball); and she’s prone to twisting her facts to and past their tensile limit to defend her “daring” challenges to alleged conventional wisdom (Palin is “open-minded, a centrist and a party noncomformist,”  except, of course, she’s not*.)

But she’s a playah, Daily Beast and all that, because she’s hit on that tired old formula that turns on the embrace of (false) intellectual courage.  Kaus, as DougJ points out, is the past master this — but so is the laughable Jonah Goldberg, for those that care about the company they keep.

These are the folks that will say whatever it takes (as long as it is satisfying to that section of the elite that signs big paychecks) to paint the other side as dupes and/or liars.

Everyone thinks that climate change is a problem?  They’re wrong — and only, say, Leavitt and Dubner have the intellectual chops to see through the delusions.

Everyone believes that Obama will serve the cause of gender equality more than a McCain led, Palin involved adminstration?  They’re wrong — and only Siskind has the courage to point out that Palin is a woman…or something.

It’s a great tactic if all you want is a gig.  But beyond that, you’ve got to remember a couple of things.  You get a choice:  you can either resign yourself to the soul-eroding cynicism of knowing that you are uttering nonsense for the money/fame/cocktail party acclaim (are you listening, Peggy Noonan?); or you have to train yourself into belief, which means you have to be willing to will a noticeable drop in your intelligence, your ability to take the measure of the actual world around you in order to preserve that belief inviolate.

*This last link just to illustrate that whatever else she may be, Palin is not a “party nonconformist,” but rather a face of a recognizable wing of the GOP.

The Data Matter: Does John McCain Hate Kids dept.

July 28, 2008

Trying even harder on the keep-it-short imperative, just a quick hit on McCain’s fumbling anti-gay adoption stance as expressed yesterday to George Stephanopolous on ABC.

Three rapid thoughts:

1. What else did anyone expect him to say? If he comes out embracing, or even tolerating gay adoption, he loses the election in July, IMHO — given what such a stand would do to his support, such as it is, among the 20% or so of the GOP base made up of social and religious conservatives.

2. Just to make the absurdity of his fumbling explanation a little more obvious, someone in the media should ask him, pressing him for a specific answer: would he prefer unmarried, single parent adoptions as long as the man or woman were straight, to placing children in two-parent, same-sex couples?

3. Most seriously: this is another case of McCain being either ignorant — unaware of the scientific data on the question he addresses — or else being simply expedient (what a polite word!), willing to sacrifice children in order to win an election. McCain said

I’m running for president of the United States, because I want to help with family values. And I think that family values are important, when we have two parent — families that are of parents that are the traditional family.

The rest of his answer is similarly incoherent, but the point he seems to be trying to make is that there is a moral and social benefit that accrues when only male-female couples raise children. Unfortunately, as a matter of empirical investigation, this is wrong. Consider:

A study released in May 2007 by the Department of Justice (Canada), Children’s Development of Social Competence Across Family Types, points out that “A few studies suggest that children with two lesbian mothers may have marginally better social competence than children in ‘traditional nuclear’ families, even fewer studies show the opposite, and most studies fail to find any differences.”[32]

There are a host of other studies confirming and broadening this conclusion. There are a few that challenge it. Strangely, they all seem to derive from groups that have a polemical interest in that outcome.

The inference becomes more clear when you consider the question McCain was actually asked: is it better for children to linger in foster care or to be raised in two parent, same gender families? To him, no. In the real world, where children without parents actually live — not just moral feeling, but the data suggest (strongly) otherwise.