Assorted stuff I’ve been reading

4 Mar
  • On the insecurity of manliness: Actual title is “Is there anything good about men?”  Interesting speech from 2007 with a couple of good points in it.  It’s a bit long, and parts of it have become outdated, but I still enjoyed the read (Thanks Chris!).  In fact, in 2007 I took an Intro Psych class and first learned about evolutionary psychology, which used evolution to explain differences in men/women and their sex drives.  Since then, I’ve read a few places about how evo psych depends too much on social constructs, and if you measure just physical outputs (e.g. blood flow to genital areas) and ignore what people say (which is constrained by what they’ve been taught growing up), sex drive becomes much more equal.  At one point in this 2007 article the author says

It’s official: men are hornier than women.

I just googled “are men hornier than women?” and came up with this 2013 book saying the opposite.  (Now I want to read this book!)

  • On challenging the status quo with lots of vocabulary words I don’t know: Actual title is “Feminism and Programming Languages.”  I’m not a usual Hacker News reader (believe it or not I don’t like spending a lot of time on the computer in general), but Jeremy Kun pointed me to this a few months ago and asked for my thoughts- the article itself has lots of vocab words, but the comments are interesting.  One summed up the article well:

This article raises the question: ‘where do our ideas about what programming languages should be like come from?

I’ve done some, but minimal programming in my life.  This isn’t really my field, but I find the above question intriguing because you can replace ‘programming language’ with ‘mathematics’ or really anything.  Or as Jeremy asked me:

Do you feel like the direction of mathematics, what questions are asked or believed to be important, what’s relevant and irrelevant, is shaped by male dominance of the field?

In other words, are there other paths in mathematical inquiry that you feel ought to be taken but aren’t, and that this could be linked to the fact that all the leading researchers are male?
Short answer to question one: yes, absolutely, completely.  Mathematics doesn’t care about us humans, but we certainly care about it.  The directions of research, grant money, what gets published in top journals: everything follows trends that we as a mathematical community create and enforce.  And we are dominated by males, so yes, the male perspective does shape where we’re going and what we’re doing.
Question two is more complicated and not the same as question one.  What “should” we be doing as mathematicians?  What is the goal of mathematics?  I can’t pretend to know the answers to these questions, or even if satisfactory answers exist.  We do what we do, we pursue what we find interesting and are either rewarded by our peers who also think it’s interesting, or not, and we have to find something else to keep the money and publications coming in.  If we were living in the world of Y: The Last Man, would mathematics be different?  Probably.  Better, worse?  Who can say?
That said, stereotypes aren’t so much about people totally projecting things that completely aren’t there but about people having a framework with which they interpret things that actually are there. It’s not that racism causes people to see (for example) belligerent teenage boys where there are none, but that a white belligerent teenage boy is just seen as himself while a black belligerent teenage boy is part of a pattern, a script, and when people blindly follow the scripts in their head that leads to discrimination and prejudice.

Look, we all know that there’s a trope in the movies where someone of a minority race is flattened out into just being “good at X” and that the white protagonist is the one we root for because unlike the guy who’s just “good at X” the protagonist has human depth, human relationships, a human point of view—and this somehow makes him more worthy of success than the antagonist who seems to exist just to be good at X.

So we root for Rocky against black guys who, by all appearances, really are better boxers than he is, because unlike them Rocky isn’t JUST a boxer, he has a girlfriend, he has hopes, he has dreams, etc. This comes up over and over again in movies where the athletic black competitor is set up as the “heel”—look at the black chick in Million Dollar Baby and how much we’re pushed to hate her. Look at all this “Great White Hope” stuff, historically, with Joe Louis.

So is it any surprise that this trope comes into play with Asians? That the Asian character in the movie is the robotic, heartless, genius mastermind who is only pure intellect and whom we’re crying out to be defeated by some white guy who may not be as brainy but has more pluck, more heart, more humanity? It’s not just Flash Gordon vs. Ming the Merciless, it’s stuff like how in the pilot episode of Girls Hannah gets fired in favor of an overachieving Asian girl who’s genuinely better at her job than she is (the Asian girl knows Photoshop and she doesn’t) and we’re supposed to sympathize with Hannah.

On the gendering of toys, or the free market.  Also videos here, which I highly recommend.  IF YOU CLICK A LINK IN THIS POST CLICK ON THIS ONE.  My fiance suggested there’s no malice in the Lego Corp., just a desire for more sales- gendering the legos may have caused an uptick in sales.  This is the hard part about the free market: of course Monsanto is going to trademark its crap, it wants more money.  Obviously Lego is going to divide the market and embrace stereotypes: they see what Barbie is doing and they want a piece of that money too.  At some level, corporations have a responsibility to society, but that seems totally unenforceable without governmental regulation (part of the point of government).  We just watched the Lego movie and loved it, but we’re also keenly aware of the Bechdel test and female characters in everything =(

I just want my kids to not feel like there’s a monster in them for being female, or half-Asian, or whatever.  Quoting myself

This particular little monster is the one that says boys save the day and overcome obstacles and girls get rescued, even when they try to save the day.  Or the one that sees the handwriting on the exam and braces itself for a bad proof.  The one that thinks you’re more like Amy and not like Penny at all (from Big Bang Theory, a show I actively hate for reasons I’ll go into later if ever), but that wants to be “normal.”  It’s the monster that says you don’t know what you’re talking about and you don’t know what’s going on so why even try.

Wow really long post!  In honor of my officemate, here are a bunch of red panda pics.

redpanda CHINA-ANIMAL-BEIJING ZOO

Click on photos for links to original sites

Click on photos for links to original sites

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5 Responses to “Assorted stuff I’ve been reading”

  1. Evelyn Lamb March 5, 2014 at 1:14 am #

    Wow, I really like that stuff you shared from the Arthur Chu article. It put into words some stuff that maybe had been floating around my brain not quite understood or articulated.
    Also, it’s not fair that you get to share an office with a red panda. So cute!

    • yenergy March 9, 2014 at 9:10 pm #

      I’m actually so impressed with Arthur Chu- you should check out his tweet responses to people who tweet-insulted him while watching Jeopardy.

      Karen and I actually have many pictures up of pandas and red pandas in the office =) It’s awesome! I need to get some good capybara pictures to put up too.

  2. DR6 March 16, 2014 at 12:58 pm #

    About “Feminism and Programming Languages”, as interesting as that sounds, I think most of it just sounded good because of connecting words that were used in both feminist and programming language theory(with different meanings), rather than having actual significance. While I do think gender roles can and do shape both IT and math, I don’t think it does it that way(but rather by influencing the social factors of both: as you say, “the directions of research, grant money, what gets published in top journals: everything follows trends that we as a mathematical community create and enforce”).

    And on a different note, thank for the book pointer, I’m totally trying to get that!

    • yenergy March 16, 2014 at 8:24 pm #

      I think feminism is a good lens that you can apply to just about anything, but I agree that it’s more applicable in certain situations than others. As far as I can tell when trying to read the article, she’s saying the way we use “abstraction” is somehow super masculine, and there’s some theories about what feminist logic/abstraction means. Of course this abstraction is so entrenched in CS/math that we can’t (or at least I can’t) conceive of some other way of thinking about this stuff.

      Thanks very much for stopping by!

  3. Anschel Schaffer-Cohen August 15, 2014 at 10:19 am #

    Brief anecdote about Arthur Chu (also, Hi! I spent the last twelve hours reading your old blog posts instead of sleeping. I make good choices):

    At some point, whenever those episodes were airing, someone started telling me about this new guy on Jeopardy who “everyone hates”. When I asked why, the reasons were, basically, that he was good at it and sort of nerdy. I could not for the life of me figure out how that made him a “bad guy”…and then I learned that he was Asian. Which, unfortunately, makes it totally unsurprising that he’s been villainized for being smart.

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