Thursday, August 28, 2014

Let Boys Be Boys. Fox News And Elsewhere on Wolf Whistles And More. My Analysis.

First Part

A recent article* about hookup culture and rape at US colleges had this quote from one of the students interviewed:

Some men feel that too much responsibility for preventing sexual assault has been put on their shoulders, said Chris Herries, a senior at Stanford University. While everyone condemns sexual assault, there seems to be an assumption among female students that they shouldn’t have to protect themselves by avoiding drunkenness and other risky behaviors, he said.
“Do I deserve to have my bike stolen if I leave it unlocked on the quad?” Herries, 22, said. “We have to encourage people not to take on undue risk.”
It led rise to the "lock-up-your-vaginas" meme on Twitter, but one also wonders what the mental stance of Herries might have been here:  Did he think of himself as a bystander, a potential offender or someone who was going to be falsely accused because the woman was drunk and regretted the sex later on?

Probably a bystander.  It would make no sense to argue that "some men feel too much responsibility for preventing sexual assault" otherwise, unless we took a really sick view of what is normal and natural about guys and sexual behavior.

However boring I will be, I still have to explain why the bike stealing example doesn't quite work.

First, if you lock up your bike, it is other bikes that will be stolen.  It doesn't reduce bike theft unless every single person locked up their bikes everywhere.

Second, even that wouldn't necessarily reduce bike theft.  I know someone who locked up her bike to a heavy metal stand, provided for that purpose outside a library and full of bikes from other careful bike-lockers.  That same someone then saw from the library window a truck drive to the stand, two burly men stepped out and simply lifted the whole stand with bikes to the back of the truck which then drove away.

The point of that story is that if all women stop drinking alcohol, the way self-defense against rape will next be formulated is by telling women not to go out at night, not to wear certain clothing, not to talk to strange men or go to fraternity parties etc.  The goalposts move, and the cost of that moving for women is to limit their freedoms and to make them stay at home.  Then the locks of the house are what will be blamed if the inhabitants get sexually assaulted.

It's good to be careful and to protect oneself.  It's good not to drink too much.  All those things are true and useful.  But they smell odd when presented in a setting where rape just somehow happens, sexual harassment just somehow happens, and nothing else can be done about it, except by focusing on what the potential victims can do to protect themselves.

Second Part

Here's an even more recent take on the same topic, in the context of discussing the meaning of fraternities and sororities on campuses.  A former GMU President, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg:

Rehm: And you don't see them participating in sexual misconduct?
Dr. Trachtenberg: No no! I think it turns out that there are good and bad in fraternities and out of fraternities. What we're focusing here on is a general situation. I think what we're doing is creating a false correlation. For example, we point out that the women don't drink, don't have sorority parties which have alcohol. They don't have to. They go to the parties at the fraternities. So it's not as if the women aren't drinking. They are, in fact.
Without making the victims responsible for what happens, one of the groups that have to be trained not to drink in excess are women. They need to be in a position to punch the guys in the nose if they misbehave. And so part of the problem is you have men who take advantage of women who drink too much and there are women who drink too much. And we need to educate our daughters and our children in that regard.

Bolds are mine.  The last paragraph is wonderful!  It appears to equate trying to take advantage of someone drunk and being drunk as equal slices of the problem.  If there were no drunk women -- presto!  --- nobody would be trying to take advantage of women!  Problem solved, and all we need to do is train women and educate daughters and, er, children.

So where are we?  Roughly, it's the behavior of women which causes sexual assaults and rape and such on US campuses.  I'm being unfair here, because the article I linked to in the first part gives many other points of views, but this particular attitude is so common in our hindbrains, so much alive even after it has been killed over and over again, that we need to interrogate it more (with harsh lights and no tea or toilet breaks).  But first

Third Part

This is from today.  The Fox Outnumbered program (where four women gang up on one man and then they all state various sexist tropes) tells us that:

Fox News hosts defended the practice of catcalling, insisting women should "let men be men" and downplaying the harmful impact widespread street harassment has on women.
On the August 28 edition of Fox News' Outnumbered, hosts highlighted a New York Post opinion article that suggested women "deal with" "flattering" catcalls. Co-host Kimberly Guilfoyle defended street harassment saying, "let men be men," and, "look, men are going to be that way. What can you do?" Guest host and Fox contributor Arthur Aidala reenacted his personal signature "move" -- aiming a slow round of applause at women on the street, which one host said she'd find flattering.

Bolds are mine. 

As a complete aside, ask yourself this question:  What populations of looks does Fox News draw its people from?  Are the women random samples from the look distribution of American women?  Are the men random samples from the look distribution of American men?

Here's the picture of the people who discussed whether catcalls and such are flattering to women:

Back to the topic, sigh.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Speed Blogging August 26, 2014; Useful Information

I seem to be currently blocked about writing in depth on any particular issue.  So this post is like giving you the raw ingredients and the chopping board and the knife when you were invited for dinner.  Sorry about that.

First, this piece gives information about the racial divide among those who were killed by the police.  It also explains in detail what the data can tell us and what it cannot tell us.  The context for the link comes from recent events in Ferguson and elsewhere.

Second, two recent pieces are about the way health advice, given via media, might be a bit confusing. One is about salt intake, the other one about the importance of a good breakfast in weight control. 

In the past we were told not to eat eggs or not to drink coffee or not to consume too much salt or not to eat fats (and later not to eat certain types of fats) and so on and so on. 

It's tricky to know how to respond to such advice, in general, because sometimes the advice changes, as these examples show and other times the advice is really intended for only a sub-population, not for everyone.  But the tone of such advice can be unrelentingly demanding, even when the data is not that final.  and the people most likely to follow published nutrition and lifestyle advice might not be the people who would benefit from it.

The recommendation for moderation is a good one, of course.  But does that mean that moderation in everything should extend to moderation itself?  In any case, I refuse to moderate about chocolate.

Third, the first studies about reading on screen vs. on paper are beginning to come out.  This one is interesting (though I haven't looked at the study itself).  It compares two groups reading the same story, one group on Kindle and one group on paper:

In most respects, there was no significant difference between the Kindle readers and the paper readers: the emotional measures were roughly the same, and both groups of readers responded almost equally to questions dealing with the setting of the story, the characters and other plot details. But, the Kindle readers scored significantly lower on questions about when events in the story occurred. They also performed almost twice as poorly when asked to arrange 14 plot points in the correct sequence.
If this is correct my guess would be that a book gives you more concrete hints about where in the story something happened than the screen.  I often remember that some fact I'm searching for was, say, in the beginning chapters of the book, on the right side.  If I read on Kindle the feeling of more or less pages on the right vs. the left of my eyes is lost.

Fourth, one study suggests* that women and men are treated differently when it comes to the awarding of flex-time at work, and another suggests* that daughters spend much more time caring for their elderly parents than sons.  If these results are correct the reason is probably in ingrained gendered expectations about who should be doing the non-monetary work related to families.

*I have not read either of the original studies, only the summaries.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Why Statistics Is Sexy. Or The Need to Distinguish Between Large and Small Numbers.

I've always liked statistics as a science  but never thought it hawt and sexy.  Now I wish we could make statistics more sexy (bare more skin?) in order to save more of us from falling into those hidden wolf traps of the net.  They don't have sharpened sticks, those traps (holes in the ground, covered by branches), but they do hurt our understanding in somewhat similar ways.

An example of the wolf trap:  Someone writes on, say, racism or sexism in recent events and then gets attacked by trolls.  Suppose that in one scenario there are five very active trolls hammering at the poor writer, in an alternative scenario there are five thousand such trolls. 

The two scenarios are not the same, they don't tell us the same story about the likely number of people "out there" believing whatever those trolls believe.  That's why it's very wrong to argue that the presence of five Twitter trolls in one's mentions means that the troll-opinion is extremely common in the real world.  Yet in the last week I've seen several people take that view of events:  The mere existence of any nasty trolls (and nasty they are) means that those trolls have sizable backing in the world of opinions, ideas and values.

So that is about proportions or percentages.  There will always be people with extreme nasty values, there will always be some who troll.  To unearth a troll comment and then to write about it as if it represents a sizable number of people in the real world is lazy and just wrong.  Even utopia would have a few trolls, hankering for life in hell.

It matters whether 0.1 percent or 60% of Americans believe that broccoli should be banned.  Those who don't get that difference are going to create "the-sky-is-falling" stories, and they are not ultimately helpful.

Add to all that the problem of self-selection, which means that those who comment on any particular incendiary topic are much more likely to be the ones who hold the extreme opposite view of the one any particular writer has used in a piece (broccoli haters, whether 0.1% or 60%, will be much more likely to be in the comments section of your Broccoli Is King article than anyone else). 

That's why the comments sections, especially if not moderated, are dominated by angry voices and often opinions better suited to critters who just crawled out of the primeval slime*.  You know, the way any article about gender inequality that focuses on women gets comments from angry meninists.

People who agree with the writer tend not to waste time scribbling that down under the article, and people who aren't that bothered either way tend not to spend time in the comments, either.  The Twitter discussions work on somewhat similar principles, though the fact that people have followers makes them less hostile to the imagined writer here.  But those who hated what you wrote are the ones with real energy to look up your handle and then enter the "discussion."

These two problems I've described above are a) ignoring the actual prevalence of various beliefs  and b) ignoring self-selection on the net.  That double-ignorance can have bad consequences:  We may be misled into believing that a molehill is a mountain, we may initiate much larger angry fights with an imaginary enemy (windmills?) and we may misunderstand the scope of the problem altogether.

A similar problem is born when someone writes an article starting with the planned plot.  Suppose that the plot is how much people hate broccoli.  The intrepid journalist will then go out and interview people.  What if the vast majority of those interviewed aren't bothered about broccoli at all?  That statement will not have a prominent place in the planned story.  Instead, even if it takes a very long time, the journalist will find a few people who reallyreally hate that green tree-pretender among the vegetables, and it is the opinions of those few people that we all will then read.

The next stage (and believe me I've seen this stage recently, though not about broccoli hating) is for people to talk about the vast camp of broccoli haters and mention the opinions of the interviewed few as representative of what that vast camp thinks.

This doesn't mean that anecdotes cannot reflect majority views or the views of an important numerical minority.  But strictly speaking an anecdote, if true, tells us only that one particular person held a particular opinion.  It doesn't tell us how common that opinion is.  For that we need the collection and analysis of statistical data about the whole relevant population (all vegetable eaters in the case of broccoli).

So all this was what has stopped me from writing on various interesting topics yesterday.  Aren't you glad I shared?
*With all due apologies to critters from the primeval slime who are probably charming and empathic ones.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Cruelest Month Of All. On Recent News.

The foreign and domestic news I came back to (from my selfish post-vacation angle) are so horrible that my customary post-travel migraine hurts less, even before drugs, than the thought of tackling them, assuming that I somehow should have wise words on anything.

Which isn't the case.  But neither is this August the cruelest month of all.  It just seems so, because of the access to global news which have not been good.  That access gives bystanders the feeling of participating, the diffuse feeling of needing to do something, yet knowing that there isn't much one can do.

Against that background the events in Ferguson, Missouri are not as horrible as the events in Iraq /Syria or Israel /Palestine or Ukraine or the Ebola epidemic in Africa.  Ferguson offers hope, of people responding to the police ineptness and brutality with protests, of black people responding to a poorly representative local government in terms of race by setting up voter registration tables, of all people waking up to the needs for racial justice in policing. Whatever the horrors of Ferguson, there are also these spots of light.

It's harder to see a lot of immediate hope in how the Ebola epidemic is developing.  Jina Moore writes touchingly of the special dangers women in Liberia face, because they are the majority of the caretakers of patients.  There is no known effective treatment for Ebola, with a current death rate of 54%, and that makes quarantine imperative, despite its cruelty.

Then there is the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant, with its extreme radical ideology, its desire for genocides of those whose religious beliefs differ from the radical doctrine by even one iota, its brutality and inflexibility.  The most recent news about the beheading of one US journalist and the threat to behead another journalist are disgusting. 

They might also be intended to elicit a certain response from the US, because recruiting new soldiers is easier if the enemy can be seen as the great white Satan raining drones on innocents in Iraq and Syria rather than local almost-coreligionists.  And the news about the slaughter of journalists are intended to terrorize the rest of us.

Right now the Islamic State is slaughtering to glorify the god they imagine to exist, and that slaughtering applies to anyone who opposes them but especially to adult men.  Women and children are usually not killed because they are seen as resources, not as equal opponents.  Young boys can be brought up to be soldiers, young girls can be married off soonish, and young adult women (and teenage boys) can provide immediate sexual services which do not seem to differ from the idea of rape or sexual slavery for the non-Muslim women and youth in the area.   But the longer-term goals of this particular regime are surely going to be terrible for the Muslim women.

Assuming there is a longer term for the regime.  My impression is that the fighters have a sizable contingency of outside fanatics:  men, who have gathered there to turn their dream of a medieval caliphate into reality.  I doubt that those dreams can be turned into anything but a nightmare, even for them.  Still, any possible response to the current nightmare will not be without further violence or cruelty, because that is what wars mean.

How does one end a post like this on a positive note?  By remembering that most people on this planet are not suffering the types of cruelty I describe above, and by believing that education, a just distribution of resources and the belief in the humanity of all members of homo sapiens can make some difference.  We are never going to have utopia, but we could have a  milder type of dystopian future where people complain about taxes and what their neighbors do to their yards and the way the youth behaves.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Letters from Vacation 3: The Male Nannies of Scandinavia

That title is a joke, reflecting the surprise of some outside observer a while ago  about the much greater participation of Nordic fathers on hands-on care of their children than is common in the Anglo-Saxon world, say, and probably in most other places.

I observed that participation in Finland.  Now, July is the vacation month there, so it could be that all those young dads were out alone with their children because they were doing vacation parenting only. 

But I seriously doubt that, given the great competency of so many young men loading (and unloading) two or three toddlers into and out of the family car while expertly assembling (and disassembling) the stroller and also negotiating with a crying child, all simultaneously.  Indeed, the parental skills most demonstrated were first class and clearly reflected long practice.

It's not that dads in the US aren't competent carers; it's that seeing them out alone with the children is much less common than what I recently observed, and that difference is probably a cultural one.  What drives it is unclear, but one guess is the generally greater gender equality in the Nordic cultures and another is the effect of the parental leave policies which make it desirable for the dads to take some part of the total parental leave, because that gives the fathers both time for bonding and time for learning how to care for the child, on their own.

I've written about this difference after my past travels to Finland, too, but as far as I can tell the trend is getting stronger over time, and the few dads I spoke with both love it and are surprised that the same wouldn't be true elsewhere.


Friday, August 15, 2014

Speed-Blogging, 8/15/14: On Ferguson, the Benefits of PMS and the First Woman to Win the Field Medal in Mathematics

This will be a hodgepodge of issues, as usual, but more than usual, because I intentionally avoided all news while recharging my batteries.  That made me blissfully and innocently uninformed, even happy, the way people living sane lives look to me.

Here it goes:

First, on Ferguson, wiser people have written about the horrors of racism, the militarized police shooting an unarmed young teenager and then using tear gas on mostly peaceful protesters, the arrest of journalists and so on, as well as the tone-deafness of the local police forces until last night.

But it's still worth pointing out that if Ferguson's 21,000 inhabitants are two-thirds black, to get a police force of 53 officers with just three black officers suggests that the selection process is not a random one in the sense of the applicant pool consisting of a fair sample from the community.  It takes more information than I have to analyze the reasons for that racial imbalance (is it straight racism, indirect racism, the reluctance of people of color to side with the "enemy" or what?), but surely the community efforts should be aimed at getting a more representative police force.  A more representative city council is also necessary.

Second, a "brave scientist" (to quote the popularization I read) has figured out the evolutionary edge PMS (premenstrual syndrome) gives to some women!  I bet you want to know what that might be:

Professor of Molecular Evolution, Michael Gillings, believes that in our evolutionary past there was a hidden selective advantage to PMS, because it increased the chance that infertile pair bonds would dissolve, thus improving the reproductive outcomes of women in such partnerships.
“In the past, women had many fewer menstrual cycles than women in modern societies, because they did not have control over reproduction and were either pregnant or breastfeeding most of the time,” said Gillings.
“Imagine that a woman was pair bonded with a sterile or infertile male. Then, even in the past, they would have had regular cycles. If women in these relationships exhibited PMS and this increased the likelihood of the pair bond dissolving, this would be a huge reproductive advantage.
Damn.  There goes my evolutionary edge, because PMS is not something I've ever experienced.

More seriously, perhaps professor Gillings is correct.  But perhaps he isn't.  Not everything that exists does so because it was advantageous for evolutionary reasons, though I have read serious ruminations (in evolutionary psychology literature, natch) on the idea that suicide conveys evolutionary benefits! It only remains to prove those benefits.

It's pretty hard to find out if prehistoric women were continually pregnant or breastfeeding, by the way.  Perhaps they were.  But pregnancy can be a pretty hormonal experience for some women, right?  According to Gillings, pregnancies might then have caused similar reasons to dissolve the pair bond.  And then there's the possibility that menstruation might have been infrequent not only because of pregnancies and breastfeeding, but because women cease to menstruate below a certain body weight.  If food was hard to get in those distant times, it could be the case that many women weren't menstruating that frequently.

And were people of the distant past pair-bonded in the first place?  If so, were the women free to walk out of that bond or not?

We cannot answer those types of questions without a time machine.  But what we can do, is to point out that the writer of this popularization began the piece with an extraordinary sentence:

A brave scientist has sought to answer a question that has baffled for centuries: why do women get premenstrual syndrome (PMS)?

When you combine that with the attached picture you get something very different from a neutral discussion of an article.

Finally, Maryam Mirzakhani is the first woman to win the prestigious Fields Medal, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in mathematics:

Maryam Mirzakhani was awarded the Fields Medal for her sophisticated and highly original contributions to the fields of geometry and dynamical systems.
"This is a great honor. I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians," Mirzakhani said. "I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in coming years."
Mirzakhani is Iranian by birth.  Iran's president supposedly tweeted congratulations to Mirzakhani.  The tweet shows her picture both with and without a head scarf.  More on that dilemma for Iranian newspapers here.  

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Letters From Vacation 2: Interesting Differences in Public Toilets

The vacation is over (sniff), but the letters I planned to write will be written now, and this one is all about the differences I spotted, in the order they happened.

Public toilets.  The flushing mechanism can vary widely, and then you feel like a three-year-old figuring out that potty business:  Proud when you get it right.  And what's very nice are places which have the sinks for washing hands inside the cubicles, too.  But mostly I was impressed by the hooks.  When you travel you need strong hooks for the backpack and whatever else you have in the cabin of the plane, and the tiny, flimsy door hooks of the usual cubicles are worth zit in that context.

Imagine a largish letter U, flatten the base and then attach it to the wall from that flattened base so that the arms of the U flail out into the room, invitingly.  If the flattened base is about three inches long, the hook can either take two bags, one on each flailing arm, or support a heavy backpack over both of them.

Such trivial things make life much easier.  God is in details and Goddesses are in the micro-details.

Other travelers have told me stories about public toilets which are just holes in the floor.  That takes good knees, but I didn't come across any to test mine (which are divinely flexible, naturally).  And naturally I know nothing about the toilets for men (though in some places people used the toilets independently of gender-markings (women's icons have a dress with one leg hanging from the middle of it)) because the toilets were for just one person at a time.

All the toilets I saw were impeccably clean, by the way.

Those words make me sound like someone with a bad vacation diarrhea.  The real reason is that when we fly we see lots of toilets in various countries, right?  Toilets must stand for symbols of countries. 

Incidentally, I hate the euphemism of calling toilets bathrooms, because taking a bath in the toilet bowl would be a disgusting experience and not on anybody's bucket list.