rinue: (eyecon)
As you might imagine, since I am a humanist with an economics background, I find reading most punditry about the Greek austerity vote aftermath excruciating. Krugman's ok. Zizek pretty much nailed it. But most of the pieces haven't been about Greece, and politics, and humanity, but about the markets, the markets, the markets. Not the people with investiments in the markets, but the actual feelings that numbers might have. This is absurd. I don't really need to rehash what Zizek said about it.

Yet the specific agony I have is itself inhuman and concerns numbers. Perhaps you have yourself run into journalists or columnists noting that bond markets haven't panicked, which suggests they've already priced in the possibility of a Greek default.

Can you spot it? Have you guessed what makes me crazy in that last sentence?

Of course they've already priced in the possibility of a Greek default. That's why Greek bonds return high interest rates. Those interest rates literally price in the possibility of a Greek default. That's how they work. That is the function of interest rates that exceed inflation. An interest rate is you saying, "yes, I will loan you this money, but I'm not really sure you'll pay me back, so you have to sweeten the pot until I'm willing to gamble on you." It's as tautological as saying casinos may have considered the odds of a given number coming up on a roulette board and adjusted their payouts accordingly.

All of these people who muscularly assert that markets will find the right most efficient outcome don't seem to understand very well how they do that.
rinue: (eyecon)
When I got an Econ BS, the joke went that it was a rebellion against my dad, an internal auditor, so as to become his nemesis. Pithy explanation: Internal auditors find people who are falsifying numbers to embezzle or cover up misdeeds. Economists have an unsettling tendency to make up numbers for things that aren't easily quantified, and to hold that you'd be a fool not to cheat if you could get away with it.

I am not that kind of economist; I remain more temperamentally like an auditor. But the reason the joke works (or doesn't work at all) is that I doubt very many people would draw a distinction between what Dad and I do if you hand us a sheet of numbers and ask us to find trends and patterns. (Along similar lines, I tend to identify as a white-hat hacker, or used to, and Dad worked in network security. NEMESIS I TELL YOU, although again we'd pretty much be using the same tools and trying to acheive the same ends.)

However it seems to me my natural enemy as an economist is not actually auditors but dudes who give personal finance advice. I say dudes because they have an extra layer of unexamined privilege on top of the other glaring oversights that characterize personal finance advisors. I imagine personal finance advisors are very helpful when they have wealthy, individualized clients, but when they try to talk about what the average person should do, they tend to enter a fantasy land where tradeoffs don't exist and human beings aren't rational actors. (Central tenet of microeconomics: the average human being is a rational actor and makes purchasing decisions based on what they believe will most benefit them, although not always with perfect information).

Today on NPR, I heard one of them literally say it should be easy for someone to save $600 a month by cutting out lattes.


But also maybe I need those lattes to stay awake and do my job, without which I have no income to save? Or if I don't buy those lattes, I can't hang out at the coffee shop and use the free wifi, or meet with business associates? Or maybe I'm counting on that daily serving of calcium in a form that is easily absorbed, without which I would develop costly osteoporosis? I'm just spitballing, here.

Also, man, your definition of investment as deferred consumption . . . I don't even know where to start with that. The extent to which that is a preposterous definition of investment rapidly approaches infinity.
rinue: (Default)
[copied from an e-mail conversation with [personal profile] valancy]

Val: http://authorearnings.com/the-tenured-vs-debut-author-report/

Me: Related if you haven't seen it:


Although the author is interested in exploring the gender breakdown of advance size (for first fiction books), I find the genre breakdown more intriguing. As we all know (I think) the standard advance for a first SF book is in the $5000-$7000 range. This is not so true of "mainstream" fiction advances, in which a "low" first advance appears to be an advance under $50,000. (By which I mean more than half of the first-time fiction advances are more than $50,000.)

The reason this struck me was because of two prevalent outlooks among genre writers. Number one is the chip-on-the-shoulder idea that agents won't represent SF because they think it's "not good enough." In the context of this information, it doesn't seem to be a quality judgement at all, and is instead market driven: if the first advance is going to be so low, I can't afford as an agent to take on too many first-time SF authors (given that my payment is a percentage of the advance), who are almost certain to make me at least ten times less than an author in another genre. (Seemingly there is wiggle room with YA.)

Number two is the perception that SF markets are "more friendly" than literary and mass markets (because for instance they accept unagented manuscripts). Instead, SF book markets would be better regarded as token-payment or semi-pro, and therefore more willing to take what they can get.

I don't say any of this to be resentful or to suggest one can't make a living as an SF author; we know that's not true. And anyway, we write this style of fiction because it speaks to us.

However, it suggests that whatever cultural perception exists around "geek culture" becoming mainstream, SF fans either don't buy many books (whether because there are still very few of them, or because they skew young and low-discretionary-income, or because they're more likely to read things for free on the internet or at the library, or because self-professed "geeks" are now much more likely to read comics, watch movies, or play video games), or buy books in a format with a low per-unit profit margin ($7 paperbacks instead of $20 hardcover).

In other words, we're still a niche genre; we're still pulp. When we get annoyed about the "good" SF being shelved as literary/general fiction, we should perhaps take it in this context: it sold well enough to distinguish itself as a "real" book instead of, essentially, a book-length limited-circulation semi-pro magazine.

Food for thought, anyway. And it puts into context [Val's] link [above], which seems to show that self-published SF e-books from first-time authors do comparatively well: SF fans probably ARE more likely to read in screen format, and probably ARE more interested in buying a lot of "cheap" books; they are also less likely to care about the prestige of an imprint. None of which is good for advances but which has some compensations on the e-book side.
rinue: (Default)
I've always had trouble with questions like "are you an optimist or a pessimist." Part of that is my general trouble with binaries. I can say that I reject binaries, because that feels proactive, but I don't reject them; I'm not taking a stance. When I say binaries at large don't work for me, I mean they don't make sense or accurately describe my intellecutal landscape. This is not resolved by making them scales. On a scale of one to 10, how optimistic are you? 6, I always answer six. It doesn't matter what the question is, 6.

6 is my internal mental code for "not quantifiable but I'm being polite." I use other numbers when I need to get something. Say 2 so they'll leave you alone, say give me medicine right now if I need medicine your numbers are pseudomathematical bullshit. Let's be honest about our shortcuts. You are trusting me or not and numbers are not evidence of dispassion.

I don't like answering "realist" to "optimist or pessimist" because I don't see either of these viewpoints are more or less realistic. There are ups and downs. I don't like answering "centrist" to "liberal or convservative." In the US, centrist means either conservative trying to not look like an asshole or liberal trying to make a point about Europe. "are you a revolutionary or do you like the status quo" not particularly. "Practical" introduces value judgements, "utilitarian." Might as well say "I'm correct. That's what I am. I'm someone who has the best ideas about things."

It occurred to me overnight that my status is "salvager." In the way that means I will carefully restore this battered antique and the way that means I am looking at an aftermath and trying to figure out whether there is a section worth sifting through or whether it's trash I can't sell. In a way that means sometimes cut and run but to another junk heap.

At all times, I feel like this is a disaster. Often a pretty one, out in the open air. With dangerous buried bits. With valuable buried bits. With struturally important remains. I will help out and pick through and smash and be hungry. And it's mine. It's no one's and mine.

Is that optimistic or pessimistic? Revolutionary? Conservative?


Jan. 12th, 2014 03:57 pm
rinue: (Default)
From an interview in the Hairpin with MacArthur fellow Susan Murphy:

Does being a statistician make you read the news differently? Are you always looking at polling or study reports and thinking that things are poorly designed, or interpreted incorrectly?

Oh yeah. I see alternative explanations for results in the news all the time.

Does that bother you?

Well, I've got this viewpoint—and I don't know if this is very mature—but I think it's a big game out there, and we all have to be prepared to play it. Everyone is trying to frame things in their own way, and we all have to try and be as educated as possible so we can understand the degree to which it's a game, and know if someone's trying to pull the wool over our eyes. Even if it's someone I agree with!

That's why I wish more logical thinking was taught in high school. Many people will never use algebra again, but logic and statistics, you can use that in real life. You need to be critical about new drugs coming out, about numbers you see. People understand that critical thinking is important from a qualitative point of view, but it's just as important from a quantitative point of view. I wish they taught that stuff everywhere, and earlier. Like for someone who doesn't go to college—I think a really good life is to become an electrician or plumber, for example. They make a lot of money, it's stable, but maybe they didn't get an advanced critical thinking education that would benefit them just living in the world. Why didn't they get that? Why shouldn't they get that?
rinue: (Aperture)
If you grew up in Dallas - really in Dallas, not a suburb of Dallas; a few blocks from the Texas Theater, where Oswald was arrested - if every day to get to and from high school, you drove down the motorcade route, through Dealey Plaza, past the grassy knoll, under the triple underpass which your great grandfather designed - and if you were someone with a mind for puzzles and espionage, it goes without saying that you spent some time pondering the assassination of President Kennedy.

I do not subscribe to a particular conspiracy theory, nor do I entirely discount the idea of a second shooter. In a sense, I find it more interesting to not solve the mystery; solutions of mysteries are my least favorite part of mysteries, and are why I tend to avoid the genre. This is a strange way to think of a non-fictional criminal investigation, where I should hope for justice, but the assassination has been so mythologized that I have trouble understanding it as an event that happened to real people. The days leading up to the assassination, real people. The days after the assassination - the funerals, the mourning - real people. The assassination?

I do believe wholeheartedly that there was a coverup. More accurately, that there were several coverups. I believe this because I understand bureaucracy. Especially law enforcement bureaucracy. If I were to describe policing organizations, I would start with the word obfuscatory. I would immediately add "self-protecting." This is even when national security isn't involved. Classification of documents is only one way of covering your ass; bureaucracies have dozens. And a lot of people want their asses covered when a routine parade goes as south as straight to hell.

I note the investigational similarities to the similarly unsolved Jack the Ripper case. Similarly overlapping jurisdictions of law enforcement agencies, similarly involved in turf wars, similarly not doing a great job of sharing evidence or waiting patiently. Similar high level of press coverage. Similar political pressures to get this embarrassing thing put to rest.

In other words, I am open to hearing about JFK conspiracy theories, in a way I am not open to theories by 9/11 truthers. I don't necessarily believe the theories, but I could be thought of as a hobbyist or collector of them.

However, something I've noticed lately in a lot of the second gunman theories - specifically second gunman on the grassy knoll - is that their clincher tends to be "the brain and blood matter flew backward and landed on the rear of the car." And therefore the shot had to come from the front.

The problem with this as a clincher is that the car is not a stationary object.

It seems stationary if you watch the Zapruder film, because Zapruder is panning to keep the car in the center of frame. And some digitally modified versions of the film remove the jitter to keep it extra centered, so that you can really see the head whipping back and the particulates landing on the rear of the car.

Which is driving forward.

Which means that in fact what's happening is that the blood is staying in roughly the same place, and the car is - are you following me here? There's an observer effect that's fucking up frame of reference.

There is also a beating heart and a circulatory system which was under tight pressure but now has a leak. When I pop a blister and the fluid shoots up, that doesn't imply a second needle inside my foot.

A physicist could work all this out and maybe tell me about the relative velocity of the car, added to the velocity of pumping blood. A physicist might even use eigenvectors. (Probably the physicist would use other matrix manipulations, but one doesn't often get the chance to say "eigenvectors".) The physicist might say that according to math, additional velocity is needed to explain the distance the blood traveled relative to the car, velocity perhaps imparted by a bullet fired from a grassy knoll.

But at present, I don't find "look at the video" sufficient or convincing.
rinue: (Default)
Sent off another Arc essay; writing these makes me nervous in a way other submissions don't, for structural reasons. They start out friendly and jokey, and then stay superficially friendly and jokey but are stealth critical essays that try to run you through a lot of data to support an argument I am making (which I may not have stated directly), and then on the last page I suddenly base jump while screaming "I am a science fiction authorrrrrrrrrrrr." At this point, I propose a radical philosophical shift in how we think about technology, usually with some accompanying shift in public spending priorities, which you are maybe suckered into thinking is not radical because I have given you a lot of data, but which maybe you think is a joke because I have been superficially friendly and jokey.

Contextually, this ending should not be a surprise, since that is why you are reading an essay by me and not somebody else. But out of that context (or in light of the high percentage of works classified as science fiction that do not do this), it has a "wait, what did I just read?" quality. It is perhaps the nonfiction equivalent of a prose poem.

However, this particular essay struck me as odd in an additional, different way, which is as follows: the science is mainly mammalian biology. And it is presented as a wonderous fronteir.

It's odd for that to be odd. But it kind of is. Science fiction, speaking broadly, has a love for shiny surfaces. (Or these days, gritty pitted surfaces.) Bio is squishy. Human bodies are not otherworldly. Of the poetry submissions I receive at Strange Horizons that I would classify as science fiction and not fantasy, ballpark 90% of them are about astrophysics. 9% are about mechanical technology - robots, spaceflight, internet. 1% are chemistry or number theory.

Bio is not so much in there. I am not sure science fiction people think of it as one of the hard sciences, possibly because it is entangled with medicine, which is not science as much as it is a combination of technology and religion. Yet science fiction people are comfortable writing about technology, and about religion. And cell biology, for instance, should be unaffected by this, but only mitochondria are considered SF-worthy.

It reminds me of an attitude I somehow picked up in high school, or maybe even middle school, that bio is for girls and physics is for boys. (Chemistry, which is my favorite, was kind of bisexual and kind of a consolation prize for people who weren't good enough at physics.) I don't know how this was communicated to me, and I don't remember it being stated (except the bit about Chemistry being a physics stepchild), but it was communicated as clearly as math is for boys and English is for girls. Or for that matter Science Fiction is for boys and Fantasy is for girls.

Never mind that my classes in all these things (and the genre readers I knew) were pretty evenly gender divided, and my teachers were similarly not gender segregated. The masculinity of physics/math/scifi and the femininity of bio/English/fantasy simply were, in the same way words in Latinate languages have genders. And in all cases, of course, the male subjects were indefinably superior, indefinably prestigious, and widely accepted as more difficult.

This last part is boggling to me. I know a lot of people struggle with math. But math has one right answer. English does not have one right answer. And in physics, I can derive stuff, but in bio I have to memorize it. Harder.

I don't know whether I defaulted to the "harder" sciences (in both the SF sense and the percieved difficulty sense) because of this perceived prestigious maleness, or because I would have anyway. (I am not big on memorizing, although who knows why, because I'm good at it and for instance learn my lines as an actor without any fuss. But this is a reason piano performance went nowhere for me; I just don't want to memorize the sheet music, out of pure stubbornness. Somebody wrote it down. I respect that.) It took me easily ten years to shake off my feeling that learning about biology was "slumming."

And I am glad I did, because biology is a lot more hackable than physics. Not to mention really, really weird. Much moreso than black holes.
rinue: (Default)
This month, Smithsonian-Pew came out with the results of a survey of 1000 US adults, asking "From kindergarten through 12th grade, what one subject should schools emphasize more than they do now?" The results, not surprisingly, broke down like this:

30% Math
19% English
11% Science
10% History/Civics
6% Arts
4% Computers
20% Other (in which econ ties with gym and religion at 2% each and foreign language ties at 1% with anti-bullying)

790 adults of America: I disagree. History and science people? Well done.

I love math. I am a mathy person. I wound up with a bachelor of science instead of a bachelor of arts basically by accident, as a side effect of taking a lot of math classes for the heck of it. I think there is a level of math literacy that is necessary for living a sensible life (as opposed to wandering in a fog of superstition and instability). I am horrified when I find out I am talking to someone who doesn't understand probability, can't glance at a statistic and tell whether it's plausible, can't estimate an object's height, and so on. I am even now referring to quantitative survey data. Numbers: they give us useful information and we are better off if we understand what they are saying.

But realistically, do I think most people - even most professional scientists - particularly need to know calculus? I don't. If you can get through Algebra I, usually taught sometime around age 13, you're probably ok. Some geometry/trig is nice. The stuff beyond that - matrixes, derivatives, fourier transformations, and all the rest - you're not really going to use unless it's your field. You need it if you're designing an airplane. You need it if you're responsible for managing the power grid of a city. The people who want to do that stuff aren't going to be doing it with just a high school degree.

So by that measure of "more" math, I don't think we need more math. Does "more" math instead mean we need to teach the early, basic stuff like addition, but teach it more? Well, I do think people are a bit stupid about fractions, inexplicably. Percentages, similarly. A lot don't seem to understand what a square root (or cube root) represents in a practical sense. It would be nice to get that cleared up.

However, I sincerely doubt that the more math people are thinking much beyond "math is important!" I doubt the more math people have looked at how much math is already in the average school curriculum. I doubt the more math people have looked at our test scores in math. I think what we're seeing is a knee-jerk "math!" response to any stiumulus. There's a contemporary cultural idea that math is a magical key that unlocks all understanding of science and technology, and the shortcut to science, technology, innovation, and wealth is therefore more math.

This is about like saying that the key to being well-read is studying more grammar. I notice that Susie isn't particularly literate, so we should make sure she knows that "walked" is a past participle.

I think this partly because on this same survey of 1000 adults, only 47% knew electrons are smaller than atoms. Let me repeat that: less than half of the adults surveyed knew that electrons are smaller than atoms. Fewer than half knew that lasers aren't made of sound waves. These are true-false questions and answering randomly should give you 50% correct.

Being better at math doesn't tell you about electrons. It doesn't tell you about experimental design. It doesn't tell you how photosynthesis works and whether this is the way solar panels operate. It doesn't tell you why making a car run on gas is so much easier than making a car run on anything else. It doesn't tell you about heritability, and whether you're going to have your father's hairline, and why. That's the stuff you have to learn slowly, a bit at a time, through lots of exposure; you can't shortcut science. Breakthroughs come because someone looks at minutia, because they get curious about how something works, and maybe because they draw a paralell to some other thing they found interesting.

So sure, math is important, but not more important than having legible handwriting, or knowing the history of the civil rights movement, or knowing that Afghanistan is nearer to China than to Egypt. When I get into an argument with someone over big political priorities, it's not because we disagree about math; it's because they don't know the average income of a person in Arkansas, or whether a particular quote comes from Shakespeare, the Bible, or a recent scientific paper. To know stuff, you have to know stuff. You have to be able to know when somebody says "this is just like Watergate" that it is or it isn't. You have to be able to know when somebody says Iran is in league with Iraq whether that's likely given their histories. You have to be able to know when somebody tries to sell you a low-fat olive oil that olive oil is 100% fat.

Math is the easiest thing to teach. It's the easiest thing to test. It has exactly one right answer, always, and you can look through the steps someone took to get to their wrong answer and point and say "there you go; there's the problem." Math is clean in a way nothing in the world is clean. Math does not give a damn about your home life. Math does not threaten or undermine your religion or your political beliefs. Math is, to an extent, sudoku puzzles (which do not themselves involve math). Math is being able to call a color kelly green instead of emerald green, and do it with confidence.

If there are a lot of people wandering around in the world, not sure whether to trust the government or a doctor, unable to get jobs beyond a retail level, making decisions about where to live, what to eat, how to vote, feeling unhappy and alone and pointless, math is not going to save them. Math alone is not going to bring them peace. Science, literature, geography, history, civics, logic? They might.
rinue: (inception train)
Every week or two, someone I know posts this gif somewhere:

someecards.com - How I see math word problems: If you have 4 pencils and I have 7 apples, how many pancakes will fit on the roof? Purple, because aliens don't wear hats.

[How I see math word problems: If you have 4 pencils and I have 7 apples, how many pancakes will fit on the roof? Purple, because aliens don't wear hats.]

Each time, from each person, it gets a lot of "I know, right!" "so true!" "my life, lol!" comments and shares. It's epidemic.

I have to assume the people who post this see it as a charming self-disclosure, maybe even on the order of a humblebrag, because not knowing math is cool and unifying. Numbers are for gross nerds with no social skills, and are completely incomprehensible to a passionate, artistic, outgoing adult-about-town. How many anecdotes a month do I read from otherwise pro-intellectual sources, in which a kid asks for homework help in, what else, math, and the writer doesn't remember, because not having to do math anymore is a sign of maturity, like not having to ask to go to the bathroom? Today, in the Globe, the writer assumed I couldn't remember the distributive property I learned in 8th grade algebra. Only I do. It's easy. It's easy enough you can invent it for yourself if you forget it.

[I'm buying food for a dinner party. I know I need 1 piece of whatever the meat is, 2 servings of whatever pasta, and 1/4 pint of ice cream per person. There will be 4 people coming, including me, so I need 4 pieces of whatever meat, 8 servings of whatever pasta, and 1 pint of ice cream. In other words, 4(x + 2y + z/4) = 4x + 8y + z.]

If you really can't handle math - if you have number dyslexia - I sympathize and am happy to help. But I won't celebrate you. And let's be honest: you're not number dyslexic, just proudly ignorant. When I read that "how many pancakes" joke, it's like somebody just said "I can't use utensils and have to eat everything with my hands, and I smear it all over my face! Haha! YOLO!" That stuff's embarrassing. You're the same people who were horrified when Herman Cain talked about "Ubeki-beki-bekistan" during the Republican primary. Know what? Same thing.

I need to be able to say, when I'm driving to a meeting 50 miles away, traveling about 60 mph on the highway but 30 mph for the last 10 miles of surface roads, plus about 10 minutes to park and walk into the building, whether I have time to stop for coffee if the meeting's in an hour. (Answer: No, I don't.) If that sounds like gibberish to you, it's because you've decided to switch your brain off when you see a number, not because it's hard or unimportant. (It's neither.) Word problems aren't some standardized test "gotcha" trick. If you're late to a meeting with me because the answer you got was "purple," you're not cute. You're offensively stupid and inconsiderate.

But you're not late to a meeting with me, are you? And you know how to buy groceries, and whether you'll have enough left over to pay rent next week if we go to a restaurant tonight and you get paid again on Friday. You can and do solve word problems pretty much daily. Somewhere along the line, you decided on this "math is hard" pose, which even you have forgotten is a pose, and in so doing, you've joined the last stand of the ascendant bimbo, mascot George W. Bush. I'll leave you alone about it out of courtesy, the same way I'm not going to grammar-pick your e-mails or criticize the way you parent. But stop acting like I'm the weirdo.

rinue: (Default)
I work in media, whether it's as a writer, as a filmmaker, or as a captioner who covers sports, the stock market, and congress. These are all areas where big money numbers get thrown around, and people say things like "a million dollars isn't all that much anymore." Or "$5 million is nothing. What could you do with $5 million?"

And on the one hand, there are things I could not make for a million dollars; I couldn't afford to buy all the materials I would need, and pay all the crew members, and rent all the equipment, and launch a marketing campaign. And if I were a sports player getting offered a $5 million contract when somebody who does the same thing, but worse than me, is getting paid $50 million, I would have some grounds to renegotiate. Money is, after all, relative.

But I try to remind myself every once in a while that if somebody handed me a million dollars, free and clear, I could pay myself my current annual salary for 25 years. I make the median U.S. family income.

So no, actually, a million dollars is still a lot of money.
rinue: (hidden)
I tried to find a regularly updated "bad charts" blog today, through the simple expedient of Googling "bad charts blog," but no luck. I found a lot of great individual entries calling out any number of publications for doing things like making pie charts that add up to 12% instead of 100%, or adding a bunch of graphics to make data "pretty" but illegible. Alas, no weekly or even monthly bad chart rants. I want the Louis Black of charts, or barring that, the Nate Silver, but it seems there is no such person. I put this blog post out there in the hopes that somebody might think "I would like to start a bad charts blog," would run the same search, and could find this entry, and know they are guaranteed at least a readership of one. This one. Me.

As you can maybe tell, I am feeling adrift in the face of contemporary user interface trends; I just didn't want to search that, because people get religious about Apple and I avoid discussions containing the word "Apple" in the way other people lament political posts on facebook.

But seriously, I am used to precise, deliberate interactions and a high level of control. I'm not saying that has to be the only way. I like messing around in a new program, and I usually find my feet pretty quickly. But when you start hiding commands from me so it looks slick, I get angry. I don't want less buttons. I want clearer buttons, arranged intelligently. I don't like having to find three different places to uncheck "curly quotes" in Microsoft Word before it's actually unchecked. I don't like it when a program "learns me" so that only my most frequently-used commands are displayed. I don't like that I have to be playing a song before I can adjust certain audio drivers, not because I need to listen to the song, but because I can only get to the setting through an invisible menu I get by right clicking on the "song is playing" icon.

I don't like that to change into silent mode on my phone, I can't go through the "phone" menu or the "audio" menu or the "volume" menu; I have to tap the top of my touchscreen (incidentally, I don't like touchscreens; don't like the lag, don't like the imprecision, don't like how easily my ear selects things when the screen is supposed to be locked), in a place where there is no button or icon, which I am supposed to have magically guessed. (It is also not something I found by scanning the user guide that came with the phone. I think I was supposed to go to a website and watch a video?)

Plus work is about to force me to use Internet Explorer for basically no reason. (Reason: they want all the computers to be standard and identical. Counterargument: my computer is already nonstandard in terms of hardware.) Maybe it's great; I haven't used Internet Explorer in ages. I'm pretty sure it's not great, though. I'm pretty sure it's going to be slow and deceptive and popup-ridden and make it unnecessarily harder to do my job. So now I have to decide how much I actually care about this, because although I am totally willing to circumvent chain of command in almost any situation, I don't go against heads of organizations to which I belong. It's rarely worth it unless there is a chance I can replace them, which most of the time (and certainly in this case) I (1) can't (2) don't want to.

This is one of those places where my Machiavellian, Realist, long-game-playing, deferred-gratification assumed persona comes into conflict with my Steve Jobsian (which yes is part of why he is my nemesis), binary, amplified, reactionary emotional life.*

Meanwhile I am ill/queasy/stomachachy and therefore also tired, but I have painted my nails green like in The Big Lebowski (which I didn't realize until after, because it looks different in the tube) and spent the morning (insofar as I consider afternoon to be morning) picking raspberries at the town farm.

* The one that makes me unpleasant to work with if I'm at all tired, unless you are comfortable with hearing "no I hate that" as a response to basically all questions, which is at least clear feedback, right? Except that I actually can be persuaded much of the time. It's dumb. This is just one of those things. Perhaps you never realized I am a master of emotional regulation, in that I have had to master it and it is not remotely instinctive. I don't even have an easy time finding words for what I feel beyond "I hate this" or "I'm fine" at most times. Which is why I normally have to disappear for a while and write about it, and sometimes use a thesaurus. It was very exciting for me to recently come across the word "alexithymia," although also horrifying and it makes me want to hide because possibly I am wrong about it and that is the worst when you self-diagnose and just start throwing things around and muck them up so they don't mean themselves anymore.
rinue: (Cathedral)
Since my birthday is the 6th and my cousin Scarlett's is the 9th, it is not unusual for the family to celebrate them both at one dinner, which in this case meant two cakes last night. And they were both layer cakes, so as I pointed out to Ciro, he actually made four cakes.

Ciro: I made four cake layers which I assembled into two cakes.

Romie: So what you are saying is you made six cakes.

In any case, I had cake for breakfast and then a different cake for tea.
rinue: (inception train)

"In the old days of raw milk (just a couple of years ago)," says Rose, "many raw milk advocates insisted that raw milk could not be contaminated – that raw milk has protective bacteria that kills pathogens. With several high-profile outbreaks where the outbreak pathogen strain was found at the dairy itself, this notion is basically outdated. Consumers now want to find a dairy that is producing milk less likely to be contaminated."

Glbufmiunungunhuh? Wzt? Kmfl?

I had to stare out the window for five minutes just now in order to be capable of typing even non-words. "Insisted" that raw milk could not be contaminated due to magic bacteria? Insisted? Because we started pasteurizing milk for . . . no reason at all, when everybody was fine?

Look, I eat food off the floor. I lick raw egg off my hand. I have been known to take bites of things as a test to see whether they've gone off. I am fearless. I get food poisoning less than you'd think, or maybe about as often as you'd think; I am more sickly than is strictly necessary.

Raw milk can't be contaminated? Really?

This is somehow even more absurd than the antivaxers. Less dangerous (while still being dangerous) and not something that means I'm at risk of getting pertussis (which, congratulations guys, is having the most serious outbreak in decades, and by the way it takes a series of vaccines until you're fully protected and so children aren't unless the people around them are), but even more stupid.

I try to restrain myself from using italics, but there are not enough italics in the world.


Jul. 22nd, 2012 02:24 am
rinue: (Fox)
My best friend is seven months pregnant and weighing the different post-delivery sleeping arrangements. Since a pillar of our friendship is our status as research buddies, co-sleeping studies have been on my mind, and the role of inference in interpreting data.

With co-sleeping, the studies are all over the place. By and large, if a study is conducted in a country where co-sleeping is not the norm, co-sleeping is found to increase infant mortality by a statistically significant margin. If, on the other hand, a study is conducted in a country where co-sleeping is the norm, it will find that co-sleeping decreases infant mortality and has various beneficial add-ons.

(Incidentally, although I'm saying "statistically significant" it's still a small difference. This being babies, we're in "any risk is too much" territory.)

Attempts to reconcile these studies mainly involves a throwing up of hands and an assumption that this cannot be resolved until we generate more data, and/or a knowing nod that means "the bias of scientists is affecting their studies."

There's a third possibility, though, because all of these co-sleeping mothers exist in a cultural context. It is possibly that all the studies are in fact showing that babies are more at risk when their mothers are people who go against social norms. Presumably, a significant percentage of non-mainstream mothers have a higher tolerance for risk, and/or have complicating factors that make them behave oddly, and/or prize their own autonomy to an unusual degree. Any of those things could increase the mortality rate of their babies.

This is not exactly a welcome conclusion, since I am myself often at odds with the mainstream, although it is perhaps more optimistic to say I am a leading indicator. Still, I prefer it to the notion that scientists all around the world are routinely making amateur mistakes in their data collection.

Incidentally, for future trend watchers, my current favorite ice cream flavor is banana, and I'm into geometric ceilings and watercolor.


Jul. 12th, 2012 09:16 pm
rinue: (Default)
UCLA social scientists recently completed a study of 30-some American families, and from what I have read by the scientists, the book, called Life at Home, promises to be interesting and compassionate good science.

The reporting, predictably, has been reactionary, because that is the state of science reporting. As I understand it, one speed-reads the paragraph-long abstract at the front of a study, brainstorms the most provocative possible headline, writes an opinion piece on that headline, and then skims a press release about the scientific study to pull a few quotes that can be wedged in. Ta da! Science article!

And predictably, some of this reporting has been done by the Globe's Beth Teitell, who reliably finds interesting subjects and then takes the least interesting possible approach to them. She's like half a good reporter seamlessly merged with the most irritating member of your local PTA. I need to stop reading her articles, because when I do it is like I am trolling myself. I mean, I might as well read the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal or listen to movie reviews on NPR.

I draw your attention to this sentence:

"Most families rely heavily on convenience foods even though all those frozen stir-frys and pot stickers saved them only about 11 minutes per meal."

This is a sentiment I have heard (albeit with less data) variations of for the last several years. Presumably this is the end result of the way Alice Waters has permeated through the culture. Death on prepared foods! Let us put our hands in the wholesome dirt!

If I told you I'd figured out a way to shave 11 minutes off my daily commute each way, you'd be ecstatic for me. No "only" 11 minutes. 11 minutes is an amazing amount of time to save yourself while doing a necessary task not everyone is excited about doing. (Oh, but cooking is so much fun! As is taking a leisurely drive through beautiful countryside in a responsive car. There is cooking, and then there is getting a meal on the table.)

Assume 3 meals a day. Assume 33 minutes a day. I want 33 extra minutes a day. 24.55 hour days? Sign me up. I can spend that half hour enjoying the back yard the study tells me (accurately) I never get to relax in even though the study tells me (accurately) I have invested in making it an outdoor room.

However, the thing that I keep returning to is the concept of "convenience foods," and trying to untangle the ontology of convenience foods.

At what point does a food become convenient?

Are pickles convenient?

Are they less convenient if I make them myself?

What if they are made not by me, but by someone in my house, and then I use them?

What if a friend makes them?

Peanut butter?


Is flour a convenience food?

Can I use a blender to grind things?

How much dirt needs to be on a vegetable before it's not pre-washed?

What if the pickles are inherited?
rinue: (Default)
The Globe Magazine ran an article today about spanking, which is one of those polarizing subjects I don't really take sides on, mainly because "spanking" is an ambiguous term that can mean everything from "light swat that doesn't pink the skin" to "repeated assault with a cudgel until it breaks", and partly because people on both sides tend to make claims I don't find credible. Given that in the 70s and early 80s better than 94% of Americans spanked their children (data pulled from article), and I interact with many of these children as adults, I can't say there are many who spanking "warped." At the same time, while "spare the rod, spoil the child" makes for a catchy adage, I can't think of a single time when I learned to do or not do a thing because of punishment or threat of punishment; the lesson I took and still take is "hide it better."

Apparently, I am not unusual in this. Skinnerian conditioning just doesn't work on people outside a lab setting, not in a straight line "learn exactly this lesson from this stimulus." We're too complex, and our worlds are too. I can't even seem to learn "don't try to grab things out of the oven without a hot pad," and that's a perfect application of pain (burning) following an undesirable behavior without delay and without exception. And, indeed, according to the article, experiments on spanking have shown it's entirely ineffective. Entirely. Hundreds of experiments, hundreds of studies. Spanking doesn't work. Parents who spank their children often think it's wrong to do so, but also view it as "the nuclear option" that will get through to a toddler when nothing else will. And yet it doesn't. (There is a single study on the other side, but it has never been published; it is not rigorous enough to pass peer review.)

Of course, the other punishments won't get through either. It turns out to be nearly impossible to punish a toddler. You can hurt them. You can make them sad. But they won't learn "no" from it, not for a really long time. They will eventually, but it is like teaching tricks to a cat. There's no point in escalation of punishment, and there's no point in getting angry about it. Toddlers simply require an almost unbelievable amount of repetition before "no" sinks in. It's easy to forget, because they learn "yes" behaviors so quickly - new words, new motor skills, new perceptual and social techniques.

It makes sense to me that this would be true. The kind of learning a toddler does requires great courage and outlandish levels of perseverance. In order to learn to walk, you have to fall down and hurt yourself over and over again, and be completely unfazed by this. It will take months and maybe years of trying and failing before you can so much as say the names of the people you depend on for everything, and during your failed attempts you will be alternately misunderstood, ignored, shhhhhed, and treated as embarrassing. You will do it anyway. To do the kind of learning necessary to develop into an adult, you have to be basically immune to negative feedback.

I suspect this is applicable to adults as well - that the frame of mind that learns "yes" quickly would learn "no" very slowly, and the mindset that learns "no" quickly would only gradually accept a "yes." When I am on my guard against risk, I'm going to require overwhelming proof before I deviate from what I already know will work. We already know that people in stressful situations adhere more strongly to routine, to such extremes that they might burn to death rather than climbing out a window when the door is blocked. Which is not to suggest a "no" state of mind does not have its place; I probably don't need to keep bugging my boss when my boss has asked once to be left alone, and "ouch, you're hurting me, stop" doesn't need further experimentation.

On the other hand, in my creative life, I am nearly immune to "no." My rejection notices certainly run into the hundreds, and possibly into the thousands if one includes auditions and elevator pitches. Yet I continue to write things and to show them to strangers or place them on the internet or read them on stage, where they should theoretically subject me to ridicule. I should, by now, have learned that I am not a good writer, and yet I continue to think that I am a good writer and that people will like what I create. This is also valuable, theoretically. It is more unambiguously valuable if I'm trying to learn a new language, where I'm going to sound like an idiot for a very long time and make the same mistakes over and over and over, or if I'm trying to build up a muscle, or if I want to pick up a new instrument.

Would punishment or mockery help me learn Italian or learn to stand on my head or learn to play the ukelele faster? I'm going to say no. No and no and no. I do sometimes wonder if this has gone awry with my narrative work, which I keep advocating with a certainty that borders madness.
rinue: (eyecon)
Mitt Romney, over the weekend, said some stupid and out-of-touch stuff, which is par for the course. He has rightly been called out on some of it, like, say, suggesting that recent college grads struggling to find work should try borrowing $20,000 from their parents. We've all been there, am I right?

[Note: I have been there. I do not however present my experience as typical or even possible for the vast majority of people.]

What I don't think has been discussed enough is his idea that if we just informed English majors in advance about the jobs picture, they'd get engineering majors instead, satisfying our shortage of engineers. Invisible hand of the market for the win!

This is an assertion I've heard made by a number of Republicans, most of whom are liberal arts majors.

As someone who did pursue an engineering major, I can tell you this idea is as realistic as suggesting a laid-off postal worker retrain in a couple of weeks as a concert violinist.

To get in to an engineering school -- to get in -- you better have scored 650 or above on the math section of the SAT. Really, 750 or above. If you ever struggled with an algebra problem, you're not getting in. If your physics teacher was a coach, you are not getting in. If your high school was small enough you didn't have a physics or a calculus teacher, and you didn't figure it out yourself and ace an AP exam, you are not getting in.

Once you are an engineering major, you'll be taking 18-21 hours a semester, not 12-15. The amount of work that would get you an A in an English class will get you a C in an engineering class not because math is harder but because mathy people like bell curves, and C means adequate, means as good as your peers, the other people who were able to get into the engineering school. When you make mistakes, and you will, there's a chance teachers will be nice to you, because they've been there; there's also a chance they'll yell at you because if you made that mistake in the real world, it would kill someone. Misplaced periods, or as we call them, decimals, are not forgivable.

95% of the people who enter college with an engineering major will graduate within 4 years. Maybe 40% of them will do it as engineers. I'm one of the washouts, and I can do anything. In my case, it's because although I could hack the math and the physics, I didn't love either enough to put up with the sexism of other engineering majors, some of whom would end up as my bosses.

If you think English degrees are worthless and should be abolished -- and I don't; my company looks for English majors, and I see job listings for English majors every day, because there are lots of fields looking for attentive readers -- that's one thing. But the only way you could honestly suggest engineering is a field your average college freshman could enter is if you've never met an engineer. Consequently, you're not somebody I want in charge of my nation's infrastructure.
rinue: (Aperture)
I've been lackadaisically prepping for the Monday draft of my fantasy baseball league (which is for work, which is something I do on the clock, because my workplace is a loving workplace). I am deliberately not putting much effort in, because I ration the stuff in my life I'm allowed to count or chart. Given half a chance, my little sabermetric heart will expand like a balloon to eat my life; I have to pick and choose my analytics so I can keep that stuff crammed down like a tiny wrinkled walnut. For the good of us all.

But I did look up how many fiction feature films were submitted to Sundance in 2011 compared to how many were accepted, and it's about a 32:1 ratio. Which on the face of it makes me hopeful, because I can be better than 31 people at least some of the time. Those odds are more forgiving than most magazines I sub to, by a factor of around 6.

On the other hand, they're fake odds, because some of the films accepted aren't really submitted; if something has $20 million and a lot of stars, it's not just sticking a burned DVD in an envelope and crossing its fingers. Going up against other manuscripts subbed to a magazine, I'm at a disadvantage to the handful of people more famous than me. Going up against other films, I'm at a disadvantage against people stratospherically more famous than me, with ludicrous amounts of money.

I think I'm cheered up, but I'm not sure whether I am cheered up. I think I am.
rinue: (eyecon)
I'm tired of seeing news stories quote the statistic that 75% of women are wearing the wrong size bra. That's not a real statistic. You can tell it's made up, because what are the odds it would be a dead-on round number like that, and how would you collect the data. Answer: some bra-fitter somewhere estimated that around 3/4 of the women who ask for a fitting were wearing the wrong size -- so approximately 3/4 of the women who thought they were wearing the wrong size were in fact wearing the wrong size, because women are not idiots.
rinue: (Aperture)
The past few days, I have had several math-based flashes of insight, in which I realize that a phenomenon I have observed over time could also have been predicted in advance if I'd thought the numbers through. I don't know why; I haven't particularly been thinking about math, or even doing sudoku puzzles. I have been counting out loud when I exercise, as a shortcut to warm up my voice before I go on air, but I can't imagine it's related. I've also been listening more, and listening more actively, to music than usual, and more drawn to the piano, but I think this is coincident rather than causal.

My realization today was to do with the fact that I know vastly more straight-identified bisexuals than gay-identified bisexuals. Past explanations I've heard for this have made some assumptions I don't like - mainly that it's easier for bisexuals to conform to social pressure and live hetero, and that if a bisexual is in a gay relationship it's safer for them to identify as gay so as not to be stigmatized from that community after already being left out of a number of hetero traditions. This makes sense, although it's pessimistic, but is contrary to my lived experience; I've known too many straight-identified and gay-identified bisexuals who are vocally bisexual, and I don't think they/we are doing it to be cool, considering it mostly makes us seem uncool and pointlessly non-conformist, and makes people wonder if we're unhappy in our current monogamous relationships, since there's a perception that bisexual equals polyamorous. We do not, in other words, try to pass. Rather the opposite. Which would not make sense if we mostly went straight or hid as gay to avoid social pressures.

The argument usually goes that to be really bisexual you'd have to date a roughly equal number of men and women and have a roughly equal chance of ending up with a man or a woman in the end, and since that doesn't usually happen, most bisexuals are "experimenting" or "spicing things up" but are only serious about one gender. There is a certain amount of bitter lesbian "I've dated a lot of bisexual girls and they all wound up with guys, so I don't date bisexuals now" - and these women are not lying about the number of bisexual girls they've dated who wound up with guys. That's real; it happens.

However, I don't think it happens because bisexual women get out of college and into "the real world" and suddenly realize they wanted men all along. What I think happens is math.

The generally accepted figure is that 9 out of 10 people are straight. That means that even if I'm equally interested in both genders, perfectly 50/50, the share of people I meet who are likely to be attracted to me is 90% heterosexual. Since I'm not dating theoretical people, but real people, that 9 out of 10 is going to be a more significant predictor of my relationships than my no-preference preference. In order to date 50/50, I have to actively seek out environments where the ratio of lesbians is greater than in the general population. Places like theater and visual arts and women's colleges, places where "all those crazy girls go lesbian." If I'd rather train as an engineer or a teacher, I'm out of luck.

Bisexuals exist, is what I'm saying. They're not secretly straight. They're just in a world where most of their choices are.
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