Saturday, August 08, 2015

Steampunk Surprise: "The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage", by Sydney Padua

I am so happy that my husband bought me a copy of this book!

I had been seeing it around, but I was really hesitant to pick it up.

Why?

Well, as a woman in software engineering, I'm painfully aware of what a controversial figure Ada Lovelace is. She's been hailed as the inventor of computer programming -- which has led to some incredibly virulent backlash, accusing her of having been some sort of hack who merely copied down other people's ideas without even really understanding them herself.

Now, let's not kid ourselves. If a man had written the article Lovelace wrote, There's no way we'd see the same sorts of ferocious efforts to prove him incompetent. OTOH, if it had been a man, we hardly would have heard about him at all. He'd probably be accepted as the "father of computer programming" by some... in kind of a footnotey, nobody-cares kinda way. But in my line of work, it's dangerous to talk about sexism unless you want a ton of it to rain down on your head, so I wasn't terribly interested in miring myself in this controversy. Thus a book that looked like it was probably a sunny-and-dry retelling of team Lovelace's side of the story didn't jump out at me as something that would be appealing.

Boy was I wrong!!

Surprisingly, the author used the oldest trick in the book for dealing with an acrimonious controversy: present the evidence. The primary sources. And then even-handedly discuss the controversy in light of the evidence.

Now, if that sounds more boring to you than "a sunny-and-dry retelling of team Lovelace's side of the story," here's the genius of it -- it's not boring at all -- it's wildly fun and entertaining!! Quite sincerely, I think the author of this book has invented a new genre, and a brilliant one at that. Here's how it works:

Padua took various primary sources (contemporaneous writings by or about Babbage and/or Lovelace and/or other famous people they met) and wrote fictional scenes around them (including some set in the author's invented alternate universe for them). Then Padua wrote footnotes that interact with the story by giving the rest of the (real) story.

This is an absolutely brilliant way of synergising the best parts of history and historical fiction. Plain history has a difficult relationship with objectivity, and is at its driest when striving to be objective. Historical fiction is fun and can leave objectivity aside -- but constantly leaves me curious about which bits are historical and which bits are fiction. The author of this work found the magic formula to combine them!

This work is at once great and truly pioneering. If there's a canon of graphic novels, this one deserves a top slot.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Approaching racism realistically

In the aftermath of the horror in Charleston I've seen some productive discussion about race and racism. Some new insights include the following:

  • Pretending (or aspiring) to be "colorblind" is not helpful. It's easy for someone from a more privileged ethnicity to say, "I don't see or treat other races as inferior, and I don't see any racism, so the problem is essentially done." This negates the very real obstacles that others face due to systematic racism. We have to be able to see and hear about racism in order to address these obstacles effectively.
  • It's great that our culture has gotten to the point of essentially agreeing that racism is wrong. Yet this positive development has ironically spawned a new problem: the "black hat villain" problem. To wit, it's the reasoning that "Racists are evil villains; my friends and I are not evil villains; therefore we are not racists."

This "evil villain" reasoning is particularly counter-productive when addressing racism because it is very, very hard to root racism out of your outlook and attitudes entirely. I think that the whole idea that "either you're racist or you're not" is an inaccurate and unhelpful model. It's better to look at it in terms of how far you've progressed and how committed you are to looking honestly and unflinchingly into your own psyche to continue to seek out and address any residual racism lurking in the dark corners.

If you respond by getting angry, defensive, and insulted every time people point out some racism you have expressed, you are guaranteeing that you will never improve and never be a true ally.

I discussed this a bit in a post from 2010:

Every time you notice an unfounded prejudice that you hold, you should be glad that you noticed it -- because it is only by noticing it that you can root it out. Having empathy for all humanity is something you can work on for your whole life and never truly succeed. Yet, some things are worth doing even though they're very hard.

Another essay has been popping up in my reading list lately which nails the point even better. I would recommend to everyone to read The pernicious impact of "white fragility" by Dr. Robin Deangelo. The author lists 11 defensive ways white people may react to feedback on racism, which sound pretty accurate. The 11th one is particularly grotesque:

To suggest my behavior had a racist impact is to have misunderstood me. You will need to allow me to explain until you can acknowledge that it was your misunderstanding.

And the author offers some practical advice for a constructive alternative:

  1. How, where, and when you give me feedback is irrelevant – it is the feedback I want and need. Understanding that it is hard to give, I will take it any way I can get it. From my position of social, cultural, and institutional white power and privilege, I am perfectly safe and I can handle it. If I cannot handle it, it’s on me to build my racial stamina.
  2. Thank you.

Let's work on taking this advice.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Your true race?

Race is real. It is a real social construct. The race(s) that people perceive you as being a part of have a real effect on the others perceive you, what they think of you, and how they treat you. Your own perception of your own racial identity affects you as well. Racial identity is closely tied with community, family, and heritage. And the construction of one's racial identity is extremely complex -- not easily reducible to a handful of simple, universal guidelines.

There's been a lot of discussion about the (former) professor in Montana who chose to identify as black even though she was white! Personally, I think that what she did was extremely misguided and indeed dishonest. But I think it is also misguided to try to come up with a simple set of guidelines about who is allowed to identify as which race just so we can have some general, objective standard for criticizing her. (I don't want to pick on this one article, but here's an example, for reference).

For one thing, I don't think it's useful to insist on having a theoretical framework that works perfectly for both racial identity and gender identity. That's like insisting that your framework for gay marriage must also fit poly-marriage: there are very clear and real parallels, but there's a sufficient difference in complexity that you can't treat them as interchangeable.

What qualifies as a race anyway? Some choices include white, black, Asian, Pacific islander, Native American, hispanic, Jewish, Muslim -- I've even seen Brazilian and Hawaiian treated as "races". I'm not trying to say "Ha, ha, how silly to consider these 'races' when we all know a 'real' race is XYZ..." -- quite the opposite. These can all be categories that affect how others perceive you and treat you and how you think of yourself. But which categories are perceived as real categories depends very strongly on the culture and society you're in. You probably have multiple racial/ethnic identities. Your racial identity may change depending on your own experiences and on which group(s) you're currently interacting with.

But this Montana lady is white, and hence she was pretending to have faced discrimination and disadvantages she never faced! True, and very problematic. But I would be wary of using this example to define general guidelines. There are plenty of people with mixed heritage who look so white that no one would ever spontaneously guess they're something else! They don't face quite the same discrimination as others in their family and community. I read lots of blogs and articles by folks in this category (in addition to knowing some personally), and I've consistently seen the message that such people understand that they experience privileges that their fellows don't. Yet, if their racial/ethnic heritage is important to them, it would be totally inappropriate to tell them they have no business identifying as XYZ if they look white.

But this lady in Montana intentionally made herself look black and lied about her black heritage to become a leader in the NAACP! And that was dishonest (not to mention deeply weird, considering being white wouldn't have disqualified her for the position). It was unethical. But that doesn't mean we should conclude that you can't change your racial/ethnic identity. Nor should we conclude that you can't go from a more privileged identity to a more marginalized one. Nor that your racial/ethnic identity has to derive from your ancestral heritage. Think about the categories on my list above. Some people integrate into a new group to the point where they identify with the new group completely (and are seen by outsiders as part of that group) -- and there's nothing inherently false or dishonest about such a conversion.

I would not judge those who don't want to identify with some part of their heritage, regardless of whether they're rejecting a more privileged or a more marginalized identity. I think we should respect people's own decisions about which parts of their heritage (and which new communities) they identify with and which they don't.

It doesn't make sense to suggest that a person has one true race that can be objectively determined and defined for them.

As far as genetics are concerned, I assume I don't have to explain to my readers that all attempts to use genes to canonically divide the human species into races has failed completely. Yes, the color of your skin, the texture of your hair, and the shape of your facial features all depend strongly on your genes. But the handful of superficial features that are used culturally as cues to determine someone's race are essentially worthless for dividing people into any kind of meaningful genetic groupings. The most distantly-related human populations in the world -- aboriginal Australians vs. some populations in Africa -- get simply grouped as "black people" when we use these superficial traits. In the meantime, some populations of "white people" and "black people" are much closer to each other genetically than either one of them is to the populations mentioned above. The experience of race is real -- members any of the above categories of "black people" would probably have similar experiences if they moved to a majority-white country. But the genetic basis for grouping them? Not so much.

My son's two best friends are an interesting case in point. His one friend is a Muslim from North Africa, and the other is... well... his dad is Mexican, and his mom is mixed further: her dad is from Haiti and her mom is French Canadian. So "racially" he's half Mexican (is that even a "race"? -- he doesn't speak any Spanish...), and he's a quarter "black", and, I guess, a quarter "white". I've heard that the French Canadians, like the Mexicans, have a high proportion of Native American heritage, but, from a superficial-racial-characteristics point-of-view, they're basically indistinguishable from any other white people. Um, except the ones that "look black"...? Anyway, the funny thing is that from a superficial-racial-characteristics point-of-view, the two friends could easily pass for being of the same ethnicity as each other, despite the fact that their backgrounds have nothing to do with one another. These superficial characteristics affect our lives so much, but it's sad that we place so much weight on them, considering that they are so completely arbitrary.

Now, I will add one caveat that I think there exist cases where it makes sense to question someone's choice of racial identity. The Montana professor, for example -- she was deceptively implying a set of experiences she didn't really have. For another, I'd question folks who use a trivial ancestral connection to harm others, eg. folks who claim that they had some Native American ancestor, hence their opinion on some team name not being racist should be taken seriously. But outside of such obviously problematic cases, I think we should err on the side of allowing people to define their own racial identity based on their own experiences.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

For the love of nerds, part 2

In the past, I've argued that we feminists shouldn't focus on misogyny because most guys aren't like that, and because it's better to focus positive attention on the positive than negative attention on the negative (thus increasing its exposure). Sadly, I was smacked in the face with the negative bits wrecking stuff that would otherwise be cool, like atheism -- specifically some "thought leaders" who unfortunately demonstrated that the ability to criticize religion doesn't necessarily imply an ability to think critically about one's own prejudices.

Through that story (and related stuff like GamerGate), I somehow ended up subscribing to We Hunted the Mammoth -- a blog watching (and mocking) the "Men's Rights Activists." It has become the train wreck I can't look away from. This blog is a kind of smorgasbord of schadenfreude because the people being mocked are such incredible villains -- and yet their villainy is its own punishment:

You know how they say "Living well is the best revenge"...? Well, the MRAs are living proof of the converse.

To see what I mean, a new article came up on my reading list (see here) that makes some of the same points I made in "for the love of nerds, part 1":

Back when I couldn’t get laid, I wondered what I needed to do to get laid.

And so, I worked on me. I worked on my education, my personality, my skill set, my career and my body. And guess what happened? SEX! And love and marriage and family and success and all that awesome stuff.

An MRA is a loser who doesn’t look inward on how to improve, but looks outward on whom to blame for sucking, because self-improvement is hard. Also, not having women praise their genitalia the way it happens in porn makes them angry.


The saddest part -- perhaps even sadder than watching them ruin atheism, gaming, and other nerd pursuits -- is the sheer stupidity of this loser-fest. Consider one of the most sad/funny recent episodes of "We Hunted the Mammoth": the vagina bus. The guy is whining about how awful it is that he has to buy a woman dinner (perhaps multiple times) to get laid, and even then she's not required to sleep with him. And in the same post he bemoans how awful it is that women sleep with different partners.

How can someone fail to see the problem with this logic? Does he think that women are non-player-characters that are generated anew each time you fire up your game console?

The most ridiculous logic error comes from the men who interpret their own lack of success as evidence that women shun nice guys and only sleep with assholes. The thing is that if your first instinct is to blame the women for not giving you some rightfully-earned sex, then you're probably not nearly as wonderful to women as you think you are. There may exist women who seek out abusive partners, but if that's really why you struck out with someone, then you should be glad to have been rejected because you don't want to get involved with someone who has profound emotional/psychological problems. And if you think all attractive women pick abusers over good guys, then I can say with a fair degree of confidence that, in reality, you are the problem.

I blogged about one of these guys back in 2009, but the most astonishing example was Elliot Rodger, who decided to kill a bunch of people in order to punish women for wrongly choosing undeserving guys over him. Dude, you are not only a flaming misogynist, but a murderer. If anything, your failure to get a date shows that women aren't too shabby at picking decent guys over horrible guys. Again, this sort of delusion is fed by the evil-for-the-love-of-evil villain trope, that encourages people to see their own interests as obviously pure goodness and their rivals as simply evil.

So we have a bunch of guys whose problem is they can't attract women, and their solution is to gather with a bunch of fellow losers and work themselves into a lather about how horrible women are. Really, I would be hard pressed to come up with a more counter-productive solution if I tried. Well, maybe a murder spree...

Anyway, this interesting article about Arthur Chu hit on one of the reasons why I care so much:


If lonely nerds are to be wooed away from defeatism and rage, he believes, they must be reached with camaraderie as much as reason.

I care about this because the lonely nerd is my favorite type. I want to see him rise to the challenge and succeed. I don't want to see him get sucked into the vortex of his own futile rage and be destroyed by it. I don't want to see him throw his life away because he can't overcome his initial setbacks. 

I want him to succeed because my adorable husband was a super nerd, and now I have two beautiful, brilliant yet somewhat socially-challenged sons. And I want them all to be happy.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Plan!!

The other day a friend of mine posted this link to Facebook: Every Major Snape Scene in Chronological Order. It reminded me yet again how absurd the Snape subplot is, but... then it hit me that playing in the plot holes would make a hilarious YouTube video!!



This is my first attempt at making a stop-motion Lego video -- I hope you'll like it! :D

Saturday, January 17, 2015

My adventures with kale smoothies!!

I'm not always one to jump in on the latest trends, but I have to admit I'm always curious to try new food trends -- especially ones involving strange vegetables! Most of what I'd read about kale smoothies came from the New Yorker poking gentle fun at the kind of people who drink kale smoothies, yet... it just seemed so weird the whole idea of pureeing a dark green leafy vegetable and making a sweet drink out of it that I couldn't help but feel intrigued.

So, a few weeks ago, when I noticed that my local grocery store had some kale in the organic vegetables department, I just had to get some and try it out!!

After googling a bit for ideas, I decided to try steaming the kale, cutting off the most fibrous parts, and then blending it with a banana and some litchis. (I don't normally buy litchis, but they were on sale that week, so I figured I should try them.)

The verdict? It was surprisingly good. This is mostly because I was expecting it to be über-disgusting, and was surprised to discover that it was actually kind of good.

I also tried blending some of the steamed kale with some Ayran (Turkish salted yoghurt beverage), thinking that maybe kale would work better as a savory/salty beverage than a sweet beverage (see my earlier post about mixing Aryan with tomato juice -- which is quite good, and I still make regularly). Unfortunately, my savory kale beverage really was über-disgusting.

While it was fun to make kale smoothies once, they weren't quite good enough for me to bother making them regularly. But then, just the other day I started seeing this:


Note that -- while that is the actual advertising image -- this is not a paid advertisement post. I just figured, why bother taking the bottle out of my fridge to photograph it when it's so much easier to just google for an image of it? Normally I would never post someone else's photo without attribution, but somehow I don't think companies are too picky about people posting their promotional images.

Anyway, as you can see, one of the local organic bottled smoothie producers has just added kale smoothies to their selection! I had to try it to see if pros' version was any better than mine.

The verdict? It was surprisingly good, in basically the same way my version was surprisingly good. But I didn't have to bother to steam and puree the kale myself, so that gave this version a leg up.

But the thing that really made me laugh was the blurb on the bottle explaining (in German and French) why you would want to buy this smoothie. It didn't say kale is a super-food or make any extravagant claims about its health benefits. It didn't say anything about kale's health benefits at all -- the claim that got top billing was that kale is super-trendy! (das heisse Trendgemüse! le légume à la mode, que tout le monde s'arrache !)

I don't know, i just love the honesty of that promotional message. Awesome! ;)

Friday, January 02, 2015

For the love of nerds

One of my main themes is the nerd love story. (See, for example, my novel.) The shy, socially-awkward (yet adorable) kid suffers humiliating rejections, but ultimately wins out. For me, this is the most obvious type of underdog story to write. As my parents explicitly taught me, it doesn't matter whether you're popular in high school. If you are the smart kid, then you have the tools to be a success in life.

You may recall one of my many complaints about the Harry Potter series was that despite being unpopular/bullied as a teen, after a certain number of years of being a successful adult, someone like Snape would grow up a bit. Emotionally. Well, there's a short essay by a professor at MIT (making the rounds of the Internet) that suggests I may be wrong on this point.

Amanda Marcotte is right that Laurie Penny is way too nice to this guy (so Amanda compensated by perhaps going too far the other way -- though her piece is quite funny). A personal friend and colleague of my husband also wrote a response that is spot on. But there's one key point that I don't think any of these folks hit on, which I would like to address.

Life is not fair. If you are one of the brainiacs, then you have an unfair advantage over others. Because being one of the smarties endows you with a magical little thing called problem solving skills.

Suppose you look around and you see some guys who logically shouldn't be desirable to women ("Neanderthals" in the above professor's terms) having lots of success attracting women. You believe that what you have to offer to women is actually better, yet women somehow fail to grasp this. If your solution to this conundrum is that women are simply too stupid to act in their own self interest (all of them! Or at least all the ones you might potentially find attractive), so you decide to spend the next twenty years stewing in your own bile over the unfairness of it all, then you are an idiot.

That's the only reason people are responding to this guy's rant, by the way. Stupid, frustrated men who have concluded that the problem is the entire female half of the human race are a dime a dozen. There are whole subnetworks on the Internet devoted to their rantings. Here's a typical example. What makes the professor's essay noteworthy is that people are astonished that someone could be smart enough to be a professor at MIT and yet be dumb enough to make an ass of himself in such a public way.

The thing is that it's not that hard a problem to solve. People of all different desirability levels solve it every day. If your offer is desirable, there are plenty of ways to find the people who will want to take you up on it, and if it's not, there are ways to make your offer more desirable. If you're looking around and wondering "Why him and not me?" -- don't ask it as an angry rhetorical question, ask it as a serious question. And apply your analysis and problem-solving skills to come up with effective strategies to solve it.