Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Less writing, more reading

It's been one of those weeks when one desperately tries to sneak some pieces of other activities in between the thinking about, planning for and actually doing a lot of work on several projects that somehow manage to have a deadline on the same day (monday, which means no free weekend).

Which means that I have to do some quality reading to persuade myself to relax. This week it is body-and-gender cultural history (T. Laqueur's "Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud", but, alas, in Swedish translation). The two most interesting things so far:

*I finally get an explanation to how it was explained that out-of-wedlock children with another mother were almost as legitimate as the 'real' legitimate children, but children with another father were illegitimate and expected to have lesser morals and be less intelligent. Apparently the view of conception was that the mother contributed with the body and the father contributed with the 'idea', the 'soul' and persona of the child which was the father's blood distilled, figuratively speaking. Thus, the child was only of its father's blood. Bad father, bad child. Not that this is entirely logical, you know, but at least I can see where it comes from. That it was so hard to understand before makes me realize how much my views are informed and determined by my knowledge (and undoubtedly, misconceptions) of biology.

*Which leads me to the other interesting thing: that the view and interpretation of biology was so very much determined by the social and cultural view of gender. The notion that there really was only one sex, though two genders, influenced biology so much that even after a couple of hundred years of dissections the prevailing view was still that the female genitalia were just the male genitalia turned outside-in. A view that - of course - was used to motivate that a woman was an inferior version of a man. (Had the then society been structured the other way around, the view might have been the opposite).

Couple this with some of the more recent gender research that (to my uninformed amateur mind) seems to partly want to reconcile two (biologically defined) sexes into one gender, and it makes for interesting reading. But otherwise, I wonder how much has really changed. I came across a manual on how to write proposals for projects within the 6th EU framework, issued by the (German) Fraunhofer Institute. It starts out by defining the terms "gender" and "gender mainstreaming" and goes on to state:

Gender describes the sexually defined roles of men and women in a social and cultural context.
So far, it's OK with me.

Gender mainstreaming means identifying and integrating the different circumstances and interests of women and men [...] The objective of gender mainstreaming is to consider the differences between men's and women's life patterns and to use them as a starting point for all actions.
But now, I become a little worried. It could be that it's just clumsily formulated, but if one assumes that for every possible action, men's and women's life patterns are different enough that actions have to be targeted differently, then one might just as easliy use this as a motivation to have all women stay at home and take care of the kids - after all, they can become pregnant so that is their life pattern (some will say, that the goal of women's lives are to become pregnant and take care of kids). And then what have we won?

I am not at all sure that the circumstances and interestes of men and women are all that unchangeably different. This seems (to me) to be the Larry Summers argument in just another guise.

(The manual can be found here)

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

It Is A Matter Of Trust

Being away for almost a week with limited internet access means, of course, that there is a hoard of intelligent, funny and interesting things to read when one finally comes back home (ahh, broadband internet connection...).

Best of what I've found so far is Bitch PhD's analysis of what lies at the bottom of the pro-choice/pro-life debate: to trust (or not to trust) other people to make moral judgments.

The bottom line about abortion is this. Do you trust women to make their own moral judgments? If you are anti-abortion, then no. You do not. You have an absolute moral position that you don't trust anyone to question, and therefore you think that abortion should be illegal. But the second you start making exceptions for rape or incest, you are indicating that your moral position is not absolute. That moral judgment is involved. And that right there is where I start to get angry and frustrated, because unless you have an absolute position that all human life (arguably, all life period, but that isn't the argument I'm engaging with right now) are equally valuable (in which case, no exceptions for the death penalty, and I expect you to agonize over women who die trying to abort, and I also expect you to work your ass off making this a more just world in which women don't have to choose abortions, but this is also not the argument I'm engaging right now), then there is no ground whatsoever for saying that there should be laws or limitations on abortion other than that you do not trust women. I am completely serious about this.

Let me unpack a bit, because I know this sounds polemical, since I am clearly stating a bottom line. When pro-choice feminists like Wolf, or liberal men, or a lot of women, even, say things like, "I'm pro-choice, but I am uncomfortable with... [third-trimester abortion / sex-selection / women who have multiple abortions / women who have abortions for "convenience" / etc.]" then what you are saying is that your discomfort matters more than an individual woman's ability to assess her own circumstances. That you don't think that women who have abortions think through the very questions that you, sitting there in your easy chair, can come up with. That a woman who is contemplating an invasive, expensive, and uncomfortable medical procedure doesn't think it through first. In short, that your judgment is better than hers.

Think about the hubris of that. Your judgment of some hypothetical scenario is more reliable than some woman's judgment about her own, very real, life situation?

And you think that's not sexist? That that doesn't demonstrate, at bottom, a distrust of women? A blindness to their equality? A reluctance to give up control over someone else's decision?

What she said.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Taking The Weekend Off

One of my favourite new toys is the BlogPulse trend discovery tool, which plots the use of your selected words or phrases during the last 1-6 months. One amusing finding is this: a rather large amount of people discussing science and research tend to take the weekend off, giving rise to very clear 7-day cycles of word usage. This is to some extent true also for "economy", but not quite as clearly.

7-day cycles of word usage Posted by Hello

"But Where Are All The Girls?"

There has, for the last week, apparently been an interesting discussion on "girl gamers" over at GameSpot. At least at first glance, the discussion seems to have quite a lot in common with the "Where are the women bloggers?". It seems that most of the (female) commenters identify and want to be identified simply as "gamers", a view that I directly identify with.

I disagree with the entire aspect of making "games for girls." That phrase just irritates me, being a girl gamer myself. For the most part, if you ask girls if they played video games when they were younger, a lot of them will say that they did. The thing is, they didn't continue. It's not really because of the violence, because there are plenty of non-violent video games. There's more about the social perception of gaming that keeps girls from sticking with
gaming. Only those who tend not to care what others think (which is a very small percentage of girls) will keep doing it.

What's the difference between me and the girls who don't play games? I have never allowed society to tell me what is "girl stuff" and what is "boy stuff." That's it. It's never been that games alienate women, it's that society tells us we're not supposed to like that sort of thing, just like we're not supposed to read comic books or actually RIDE motorcycles (just sit on them and look sexy, you know). Games don't need to change, people do. Women need to be willing to give games a try despite what men say, and men need to stop patronising us, staring at us, or asking if we're looking for our boyfriends every time we step into an EB Games. [roseargent]

I kind of recall that much of the "games for girls" discussion I've seen in various places seem to be initiated round the view that girls/women/females are some kind of "other" that will not enjoy the games that are played by "normal" gamers (who are all boys). And this view permeates much of other "where are all the girls" discussions as well. For instance, the "why do girls not like math" discussion that either goes into biologist extremes trying to make parallels behind hunting gazelles and solving integrals (with the as yet unproved assumption that all men did all the hunting and all women did all the cooking), or tries to find "faults" in the math textbooks, or states that maths and science is much too competitive for the girls, who just want everybody in the group to be nice to each other and socialize. Or the "where are all the women bloggers" discussion where the assumption that women do not like politics (and arguing about politics) seems to be central. And let's not get into the discussion about the differing views that women and men are presumed to have on sex, because then I might become to irritated to be able to write in full sentences.

And also, most of the comments that I've read so far point to the social pressure as a explanatory factor. Many persons (as far as I've noticed) hold the view that gaming is an irresponsible useless waste of time that kids and adolescents do and are assumed to grow up from. Team this with the pressure on girls to be grown up and responsible from their early teens at the latest, and there you have part of the explanation. Add the known fact that (grown-up) women generally have less free time per day than men of the same day (there are several statistical reports on this, for instance this report from 2003, see page 2-3) - at least one hour less - and there is another part of the explanation.

You know, I really wish that people would stop assuming that men and women are so different and want so different things out of their lives. It makes me so angry, I want to throw things. Preferably at the next person telling me how wonderfully peaceful and cooperative women are compared to men.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Things To Do With Good Olfactory Sensors

I was, yesterday, listening to an interesting talk on what we could do with good olfactory sensors (odor sensors). Lots of the intended applications were in medical care (for instance, noninvasive monitoring of the elderly: has he or she taken a shower? Turned on the stove? Eaten? Is there old food in the fridge? and so on). Cheaper, and respecting of people's privacy, but I think one factor is missing: many elderly people really need the social interaction (of visits from care personell) as well.

But the most interesting imagined application, in my view, was only mentioned briefly: a sensor (system) for detecting allergens. With allergy going rampant in large parts of the civilized world at the same time as the consumption of pre-processed food is rising sharply (that is, food that may contain lots of trace elements that may not be declared) and genetic engineering leads to inclusion of genes from one species into another species (not so much of a problem for allergic people yet, but it may well become), allergies are becoming both a cost problem and a health problem. Especially for the allergic individual whose life may depend on the tiny tiny text "may contain traces of nuts" at the bottom of the package.

Now imagine that you have a portable, sensitive device that can (reliably) tell you if the food you just bought (or, maybe even, you are contemplating to buy) contains the allergen that will make you ill. [Come to think of it, this device already exists in some Science Fiction literature... very useful for exploration and colonization of other planets]

That would be a considerable increase in life quality, wouldn't it? As long as it would be reasonably affordable, there would also be rather many potential customers. Since the allergens in many cases already are known it needn't be complicated. Of course, the sensor systems are not quite there yet - but they most probably will in the future.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Late Night Thoughts Recapitulated

With the recent news that Sweden is (most probably) going to have a feminist political party (that is , a political party with feminism as its political platform - is this a world first?) in the 2006 elections, a lot of murky debate issues have begun bubbling to the surface. For some reason, this seems to call out to the worst parts of some people - at least those that write to newspapers and call to radio stations. I've yet to see a good reason why we should not have a feminist party in this the debate, but I've seen several stupid, sexist or plainly willfully uninformed ones. (Like "we can not have a democracy if people vote with their bodies", "flee Sweden before the man-haters come after you" and similar bouts of blazing intelligence). Nor have I seen very much (independent) analysis on why we do need one - most seem to be along the lines of "having a feminist party is alright but I'm not going to vote for them since feminism has nothing to do with most parts of politics". And in my still rather uninformed state, I'm not going to decide yet what I think - besides that we do need new viewpoints in the debate and I am bound to agree that having a feminist party is a good way.

If someone had asked me a few years ago, I'd probably have said that it was unnecessary. In retrospect, I think I should have realised a bit sooner that men and women are treated differently in a myriad of small ways that definitely add upp to huge consequences in many people's lives. I've had a lot of occasions:

When I was five years old and irritated that people (relatives, for instance) tried to give me pink things all the time, although I despised pink.

When I as a kid got dolls, play stoves and play sewing machines (which I cannot remember having ever put on a wish list) but not the Lego spaceships and complicated Technic Lego models I fervently wished for.

When I had to wait until close to closing time at day nursery to be able to play with one of my best friends who happened to be a boy (the view among the other children was that the girls should play with the girls and the boys should play with the boys)

When I to the question "Miss, I am finished with my math exercises, can I have some more?" always got the answer "no, go and help the other kids".

When it was never, ever questioned that the girls got picked last for soccer and any other ball game you can think of.

When I for the thousandth time encountered the opinion that I could not possibly like math since I was a girl. Or physics.

When the "nice girls" in my class were placed beside the "unruly boys" to keep them quiet.

Based on that, and a hundred other petty examples, one would think that I should have drawn the conclusion at the age of ten, at the latest.

Or when me and my classmates became teenagers and collided headfirst with the "whore"/"madonna" clichés. Enough to wake me up? No.

Or when most girls in my class started complaining about how "fat" they were and were irritated when I, quite truly, told them "You're thinner than me, and I am thin, so you cannot possibly be fat". I was merely astounded that they could not see the logic of it...

Or when it turned out that my first real boyfriend was going to inherit a quite substantial amount of money from older relatives and some people started telling me - and my mother - that now I had my future worked out, *wink wink nudge nudge*.

I am getting bored of this, but there are many more available examples. To make a long story short, I think I had to move away from home (small town) and meet other people (much bigger city) with other ingrained sets of norms to see that this, to a large extent, was part of a bigger picture. Hopefully, if this debate gets going, enough stupidity is going to turn up that people recognize it for what it is a lot sooner.

If Sweden is the most equal there is (as the opinion seems to be, internationally), than the rest of the world is in a sorry state indeed.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Hugo Award Nominations

I realize, somewhat belatedly, that the nominations for the 2005 Hugo Awards are out (since March 26 to be exact)

Now, I am mainly a book (i.e novel, not novella) person, so I am of course most interested in the Best Novel Nominations:

# The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks (Orbit)
# Iron Council by China Miéville (Del Rey; Macmillan)
# Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross (Ace)
# Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury)
# River of Gods by Ian McDonald (Simon & Schuster)

Two of these I was already planning to read (Iron Council and Johnatan Strange & Mr Norrell) as soon as I can find them in more carry-around-friendly versions (hardcover is too heavy). And, well, now I will have to look for the other three as well...

The whole list of award nominees is here.