Feb. 18th, 2013 05:29 pm
clevermynnie: (and then?)
One of my biggest behavioral pet peeves is when people use criticism as a way to try to gain status. The implication is that if someone shows you something—a place, a work of art, an idea—and you can tear it down, you must understand it better than the person who showed it to you to be able to pick it apart. There’s a respectful way to disagree with another person’s assessment or value system, to present your own reasons while showing an understanding of theirs, but then there are ways of criticizing that are all about showing who has the upper hand. I think I am exposed to this especially in science, where so much of your standing in the community is about not just the validity of your ideas, but also your quickness in either grasping or poking holes in new ideas that you’re exposed to. And while I do appreciate spirited discussion and interplay about interesting things, I kind of resent when conversations start to feel like a battle that one person is intent on winning. To me it’s more enjoyable as well as more productive to take a collaborative approach to the whole thing.

So, in my improv class we had a few exercises about status, discussing how to portray status differences in a scene and what sort of status combinations or changes can be funny and why. We had to do scenes with assigned status levels, and in one scene I was supposed to have the highest status. I really shocked myself by defaulting to criticism to show that I had high status! The class talked about the scene afterward, and described my behaviour as very aloof and impossible to please, but successfully high-status. It made me physically uncomfortable to act that way, and I felt kind of horrible afterward hearing people describe how I'd acted (in a scene!). But that’s what I went for as the most obvious way to demonstrate status. Some of the people after me who were highest status in their scenes were nicer about it, delegating and being gracious while being obviously dominant, and we also talked about how a person can confer high status onto others. It also made me think about softer forms of power, the sort that don’t involve constantly asserting that you are the one in charge.

The day after we did these status exercises, I went with a friend to eat lunch in the college’s faculty dining room. I thought it would be really cool to see, but then as it turned out a lot of the scene was older white male faculty members all trying to assert status. Wow. I signed up for this improv class with a friend and she had warned me that I would be seeing improv everywhere afterward, but yes, so much of what we do is about status! Or to be more precise, so much of what people do that I dislike is about status.

And in science, the criticism as status thing really bothers me in part because I feel it quashes a lot of creative scientific endeavors. Sure, it can be quick and easy to find fault. But that’s also the safest and most conservative route, which ignores a lot of clever and interesting stuff. I think scientists also tend strongly to dismiss things that are non-quantifiable as unimportant, which is how you end up with so many poorly communicated papers and talks, and also is a big part of why scientists are quick to trash science communication and outreach. If you exert status by fact-checking and criticism, why bother with anything else? Obviously, I think this is a very limiting way to approach things and total bullshit, but it has a lot of traction.

But if you are actually interested in contributing to something worthwhile, this is not the way to do criticism. I love to criticize in the sense that I love analysing things, trying to see them as a whole whole from all angles, trying to get where they work and where they don’t. Which means that when I give feedback, I like to emphasize the stuff that seems to work along with the trouble spots I have found. It’s very rare that I find a theory, a piece, an idea that I disagree with every part of, so this balanced approach to criticism is the most natural one for me. But I will say, when I realize that someone else is viewing discussion as a competition, I can have a hard time not trying to win. Which is to say, I sometimes buy into the status values that other people put on things, even though I don’t really want to, because of my own ego. I’m hoping to get better at this, in science and in other contexts. In improv as in life.


Dec. 19th, 2012 05:53 pm
clevermynnie: (mask)
This is not f-word friday, but a more general 'dammit people COME ON' Wednesday, in response to the school shooting at Newtown last week. It was utterly heartbreaking, but has also resulted in some of the most horrendous public policy arguments I've seen in a long time. My go-to resource here has been [ profile] bex, who says what I am thinking but with more eloquence and more expertise:

If your fall-back argument is "but responsible gun owners!", then I want to know if you think "responsible gun owner" is something you ARE (an identity) or something you DO (a behavior). I think the gun rights debate in this country is hung up not just on the 2nd Amendment, but on this stubborn insistence on dividing humans into "good guys" and "bad guys." Guess what? Maybe 1% of the population, if that, could fit in those categories. The rest are just PEOPLE. People who make good decisions sometimes and bad decisions other times - "criminals" and "law-abiding citizens" alike. So when you sell a gun to someone, how do you know if he's a responsible gun owner? Maybe he is today, but will he be one tomorrow? Next year? Will he still be a responsible gun owner when he loses his job and slips into depression? Will he still be a responsible gun owner when his wife threatens to leave him and take the kids? Will he still be a responsible gun owner when the corporation where he has worked his whole life suddenly reveals they've been robbing the pension fund and now he has nothing? Responsible gun ownership is not an immutable characteristic of an individual, it is a BEHAVIOR, a choice, that is subject to change in certain circumstances. You are a responsible gun owner right up until the point that you're not. Refusing to restrict access to firearms for "responsible gun owners" is not a sound public policy, because it's not actionable.

And more [ profile] bex, in a wonderful entry on mental health which is worth reading in its entirety, especially for the references: "But please, while you are blaming the mentally ill for gun violence, remember that a whooooole lot of gun violence is committed by very mentally-healthy individuals. Remember that many of your friends and family are probably "mentally ill" in some way, diagnosed or not. And remember that the failure of the mental health system is just one part of the problem here, just like the accessibility of firearms is one part of the problem, too. The solution to America's problem with gun violence will not be "fix mental health care" OR "less guns" - it will be both of these things and much, much more."

And of course, the most relevant stuff I've seen from around the web, where other people dissect the issue in ways I found useful:

Battleground America: A detailed history of gun control and the gun lobby in America, written after the killing of Trayvon Martin.

The NRA’s war on gun science: 'Over the past two decades, the NRA has not only been able to stop gun control laws, but even debate on the subject. The Centers for Disease Control funds research into the causes of death in the United States, including firearms — or at least it used to. In 1996, after various studies funded by the agency found that guns can be dangerous, the gun lobby mobilized to punish the agency. First, Republicans tried to eliminate entirely the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, the bureau responsible for the research. When that failed, Rep. Jay Dickey, a Republican from Arkansas, successfully pushed through an amendment that stripped $2.6 million from the CDC’s budget (the amount it had spent on gun research in the previous year) and outlawed research on gun control with a provision that reads: “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”'

A Broader Based Response to Shootings: "Such events could help move us toward constructive actions that will result in a safer and more just world -- or they could push us toward counter-productive and costly actions that simply respond to the particulars of the last horrific event. I will make the case that a narrow focus on stopping mass shootings is less likely to produce beneficial changes than a broader-based effort to reduce homicide and other violence. We can and should take steps to prevent mass shootings, of course, but these rare and terrible crimes are like rare and terrible diseases -- and a strategy to address them is best considered within the context of more common and deadlier threats to population health."

Twelve facts about guns and mass shootings in the United States : "When we first collected much of this data, it was after the Aurora, Colo. shootings, and the air was thick with calls to avoid “politicizing” the tragedy. That is code, essentially, for “don’t talk about reforming our gun control laws.” Let’s be clear: That is a form of politicization. When political actors construct a political argument that threatens political consequences if other political actors pursue a certain political outcome, that is, almost by definition, a politicization of the issue. It’s just a form of politicization favoring those who prefer the status quo to stricter gun control laws."

In Pursuit of Doing Something Meaningful: "I am totally and unreservedly in support universal access to comprehensive psychiatric care. I believe universal healthcare to be a human right. But mental healthcare reform is not necessarily, forgive the turn of phrase, the magic bullet some imagine it to be. Centering the discussion around mental healthcare—whether it's advocating for better psych care services, or advocating for background checks on all gun purchases—is ultimately just another way of eliding what the real and forever problem is: Anyone outside of law enforcement or the military having access to guns that are designed for nothing but the murder of other human beings. That is the subject about which we need to have a meaningful discussion. And it is the primary subject we continue to studiously avoid.

There is one other subject that is off the discussion menu—and that is the fact that mass killings are committed by men almost exclusively. Of the 62 mass murders carried out with firearms across the US since 1982, 61 of them were committed by men. Forty-four of the killers were white men. Every one of the men who picked up a gun—or multiple guns—and started shooting people was socialized in a patriarchal culture that encourages an aggressive masculinity one of the key expressions of which is meant to be violence. That is not incidental. And you can bet your ass that if there was an epidemic of mass slaughters committed by women, their gender would be mentioned. How we raise girls would be examined. It would be talked about. Womanhood would be on the discussion menu."
clevermynnie: (mask)
Today's First Bad Study Popularization: "Getting the actual study costs 25 dollars and I need those for my chocolate-and-nectar budget, sorry. But I should note that there are very strong gendered stencils on how one answers questions of those types, and those stencils work in the direction of the results the study obtained. Or put in other terms, alternative explanations for the findings should be discussed, even in the popularizations but certainly in the study."

The Science of Racism: Radiolab's Treatment of Hmong Experience: "The aired story goes something like this: Hmong people say they were exposed to Yellow Rain, one Harvard scientist and ex-CIA American man believe that’s hogwash; Ronald Reagan used Yellow Rain and Hmong testimony to blame the Soviets for chemical warfare and thus justified America's own production of chemical warfare. Uncle Eng and I were featured as the Hmong people who were unwilling to accept the “Truth.” My cry at the end was interpreted by Robert as an effort to “monopolize” the story. They leave a moment of silence. Then the team talks about how we may have shown them how war causes pain, how Reagan’s justification for chemical warfare was a hugely important issue to the world -- if not for “the woman” -- because clearly she doesn’t care. There was no acknowledgement that Agent Orange and other chemicals had long been produced by the US government and used in Southeast Asia. The team left no room for science that questioned their own aims. Instead, they chose to end the show with hushed laughter."

An Open Letter to Congressman Paul Ryan: "I imagined being an old woman, watching my grown daughter die for want of adequate health care. Watching my daughter become homeless, as I sat in a nursing home unable to help. I imagined my son or my future daughter-in-law or grandchildren resenting or hating my daughter for requiring their care – or simply being unable to care for her. For the first time, I thought I might have to have an abortion. Not because I couldn't love my daughter. Because I already loved my daughter, and like all mothers, I wanted her to have a decent life."


The Difference Between Equity and Binders Full of Anybody: "Diversity is about variety, getting bodies with different genders and colors into the room. Equity is about how those bodies get in the door and what they are able to do in their posts. A diversity approach has gotten us to the point where Romney could get a binder full of women’s resumés. (Though, notably, the real credit goes to the group MassGAP, which pushed the governor’s office to hire more women in high-level posts.) An equity approach is what would have forced him to address the pay gap, which I bet all the women in those binders have experienced."

Binders full of women, and the Ledbetter Fair Pay act: "Kudos for Romney hiring a lot of women into these positions, even if he he had to be told. It’s too bad he felt the need to make it sound like his own idea when he wasn’t. He could’ve spoken of it as a teachable moment he’d experienced. But that leads to the second problem, which is that his response doesn’t address the question. He was asked what he would do to promote income equality between the genders. In the best light, his response could be interpreted as saying that he personally would make sure some of the people he’s in a position to hire were women. Given the power a president has to improve stuff like this (Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act), 'Well, I went out of my way to hire some women one time in my long career!' is a non-answer."

And, this article is long but very worth reading.

Why Elites Fail: "In order for it to live up to its ideals, a meritocracy must comply with two principles. The first is the Principle of Difference, which holds that there is vast differentiation among people in their ability and that we should embrace this natural hierarchy and set ourselves the challenge of matching the hardest-working and most talented to the most difficult, important and remunerative tasks.

The second is the Principle of Mobility. Over time, there must be some continuous, competitive selection process that ensures performance is rewarded and failure punished. That is, the delegation of duties cannot simply be made once and then fixed in place over a career or between generations. People must be able to rise and fall along with their accomplishments and failures. When a slugger loses his swing, he should be benched; when a trader loses money, his bonus should be cut. At the broader social level, we hope that the talented children of the poor will ascend to positions of power and prestige while the mediocre sons of the wealthy will not be charged with life-and-death decisions. Over time, in other words, society will have mechanisms that act as a sort of pump, constantly ensuring that the talented and hard-working are propelled upward, while the mediocre trickle downward.

But this ideal, appealing as it may be, runs up against the reality of what I’ll call the Iron Law of Meritocracy. The Iron Law of Meritocracy states that eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility. Unequal outcomes make equal opportunity impossible. The Principle of Difference will come to overwhelm the Principle of Mobility. Those who are able to climb up the ladder will find ways to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies and kin to scramble up. In other words: 'Who says meritocracy says oligarchy.'"


Aug. 30th, 2012 04:24 pm
clevermynnie: (Default)
[ profile] bex posted something on facebook recently about the tension between living up to your potential and being happy... I wrote something briefly there but felt compelled to expand on it.

When I was in my teens, I believed that living up to my potential was a moral obligation. Basically, that if I didn't work my hardest to do as much as possible with what I had, I was being lazy and unworthy of the opportunities and talents available to me. I synthesized these beliefs both from objectivism, which I was really into at the time, and from my own feelings that I wanted to do more and more and more, forever and ever. I was trying to figure out where my own limits were, how much I could challenge myself, and I derived quite a bit of happiness from achievement. I still do, in fact!

But at this point, I have managed to push myself a lot farther than I could have conceived of in my teens. I've also had experiences that have led me to being more thoughtful about what I get from achievements, and to think about what I am trading in order to accomplish things. There are some things I am willing to give up in order to further a goal, for varying periods of time, and some things I am not. For example, at this point in my life I know that I need balance, and a variety of activities, in order to stay happy. Could I get further with one specific thing by excluding all others? Sure, but I would be miserable (and have been in the past when I've tried this), so I don't begrudge myself balance. That was a situation I hadn't really come to yet when I thought living up to my potential was the moral choice.

And more fundamentally, I think it's misleading to think of 'potential' as a one-dimensional thing. What would it mean to live up to my potential? Would it mean working 14 hours a day to get a tenure track position at a research university and aim for high-impact publications and an impressive scientific career? Would it mean quitting my job, writing 14 hours a day, and getting popular science books published that inspire masses of people to pursue science? Would it mean choosing a sport (aagh, so many) and doing it or cross-training 14 hours a day to get competitive and seek out sponsorship? Would it mean focusing on music, finally, FINALLY? Would it mean having some damn kids already and parenting them to be as amazing as humanly possible? Potential exists along so many axes, but the time put in to cultivating potential along any one of those axes excludes the others. There are always tradeoffs, and the nature of potential is such that it can never be fully realized! What's more, as an experimental scientist, I suspect that when we describe the full potential of something (a person, a place, a philosophy), we are probably half-wrong most of the time! It is really hard to accurately predict how ideas translate to the real world, and possibly never more so than when talking about a human being.

So I see the question of living up to one's potential as an optimization problem. There are several inputs with varying weights, and there are terms that can't drop below a certain minimum value, and within those constraints we are each attempting to maximize happiness. This would obviously have to account for happiness derived from achievement, prestige, and money in addition to happiness derived from friends, loved ones, and standing in the freezing rain high up on a mountain attempting to find yourself on a map. I don't think I've solved the problem for myself yet, but I take some comfort in the fact that I'm a lot closer to the solution than I used to be!
clevermynnie: (and then?)
When I posted about my near-term exercise plans, I was asked "And, what is your motivation, your drive behind all this?" Which is such a good question that I feel it deserves its own entry. I think it's simplest to divide my reasons up into a couple of categories:

My physical motivations for exercise:
1. Being in shape frees me to do the things I feel like doing, like swimming for a long time in a lake, walking aimlessly for hours with a friend, running up several flights of stairs because I forgot something; if I am really fit then my capabilities are in line with what I want to do.
2. Strength training, aerobic training, and training for physical skills all contribute to a sense of being the master of my own body, a sensation that I find extremely satisfying.
3. I care less about what my body looks like if I know that it is capable of great things. Which is quite freeing.

My mental motivations for exercise:
1. Exercise seems to act for me as a negative mood stabilizer, often blunting anger or relieving sadness or just excising boredom. It's very rare that I feel worse after running than I do before running (and that's mostly limited to things like the time I fell and embedded tiny rocks in my hand). I start exercising, and initially I am focused on what's upsetting me, and after not very long it starts to fade.
2. I find exercise very helpful from a planning and reasoning point of view; I often sort out problems while I'm exercising, or come up with plans for how to get something done, or reason out the intricacies of interpersonal issues. I think a lot while I'm exercising, looking around at the outdoors and listening to music, and this is very different from thinking in a chair.
3. I am strongly goal-oriented, and exercising to achieve something is inherently satisfying to me, whether that thing is a good performance in a race, increased strength or speed, or reaching a difficult distance or location.

The last reason, which is both physical and mental, is that I love the feeling of exulting that comes after doing something especially difficult. It is probably half endorphins, half the knowledge that I've reached a goal, but I feel like such a complete badass, suffused with a very physical joy, and I love it.


Nov. 9th, 2010 10:12 pm
clevermynnie: (and then?)
I have recently been thinking about self-confidence, and some of the ways it comes into play in my life. It's the topic of many a middle school after school program, but it also sits at the heart of some things that have been relevant in my life, like social anxiety and impostor syndrome.

From a science and academia perspective, research can be performed in two extreme ways: either as a collaborative effort where many people are contributing (which requires a lot of confidence to put your ideas out there and feel ok when some of them are silly), or as a competition in which differing ideas are in a contest with each other (this can also require confidence, so much so that I am tempted to call it a "confidence game" except that has another meaning entirely). Both modes of science can produce results, but they both involve some willingness to have your ideas trashed (in one case by a friendly party, in the other case not so much). And either way, you are participating in an exchange where ideas are the most valuable currency, which is putting quite a bit of confidence in the output of your brain. I used to feel periodically crappy about the scientific output of my brain, because I do not spend all my time on science and prefer to have a broader focus. But in grad school I have really come to terms with that after seeing some of the advantages it can give me, for example the usefulness of having writing as a hobby, or the usefulness of being interested in EE and math on top of physics. And the sanity lent to me by sport, music, etc. But fundamentally, without some measure of confidence I would not be able to persist in this field, and I see that. I suppose that, career-wise, my stubbornness won out over my lack of confidence.

In personal relationships, confidence is still important but the ways that it contributes are very different. I have definitely had a hard time in the past, early in developing a relationship of any kind with someone, when I would be afraid to state possibly controversial views or offer information based on my perception of the other person, for fear that I would have misjudged and the person would then misjudge me in turn. I used to worry about this a lot more than I do now, and basically there are two reasons why it doesn't bother me as much any more. The first part is about trusting my friends, which means trusting that if people who I think are cool care about me and like interacting with me, they are probably right to, and not just showing bad judgment in this one area of their lives. And the second part is about internalizing that other people's judgments of my character, if they are wrong, do not really affect who I am. This has happened a couple of times, where someone has seriously misjudged me (once in a circle of friends and once in the workplace), and while both times it was very upsetting... in neither case did it say anything about me, just about how those people chose to interpret limited information. And more practically, in both cases, worrying about the possibility in advance did nothing to prepare me. So one can conclude that worrying about other people misinterpreting your character is not a fruitful activity, even if misinterpretations do happen.

Maybe there is a third part to worrying less about what other people think, and that third part is valuing your own time. Of course, time spent worrying is often (but not always) time wasted. But also, there is recognizing that it is not my responsibility or a requirement on my time that I correct other people's potential misconceptions, or worry about correcting misconceptions that they have not even bothered to bring to my attention. I put every effort into communicating clearly with my close friends, but with acquaintances that I have already put a reasonable effort into, additional worrying or justification (or worse, inaction) is really just not worth it.

So, I used to be really careful with and paranoid about my words to people I was intimidated by, either in a work or a personal environment, and I used to worry a lot about the way I was perceived. It would be lying to say I'm not concerned at all about it now, but I think I let it inform my self-perception a lot less at this point. My confidence is higher, and it turns out that helps me to get more out of my interactions anyway.


Aug. 12th, 2010 06:15 pm
clevermynnie: (I see beauty)
I wrote most of this awhile ago, it felt too earnest so I sat on it, and I finally realized that I don't care if it's too earnest. Sometimes I am earnest.

I have recently been thinking about identity. How people figure out who they are, how they find the things that matter to them, how they develop systems of behavior that define their personality, and how events and time shape this.

Probably the most important reason to think critically about identity is its role in finding happiness. It is difficult to find a fulfilling job or enjoyable relationships if you don't know what you want, what makes you feel complete, and most people's searches for happiness are really searches for a place in the world where they fit and their needs (both basic and advanced) are met. How well you can describe and find such a place depends strongly on how well you understand your own identity. It's also a very relevant topic in conflict resolution, actually; one of my favorite things to take away from the book <i>Difficult Conversations</i> was how often the most troubling arguments are those that touch on a person's identity, where they appear to be arguing about some surface level thing but it's really about, "this is who I am and if you are right, I don't like the implications for my identity". So thinking critically about your identity, personality, what makes you you and where it came from, can help a lot when you are having trouble seeing eye to eye with someone.

Where does it come from, though? The most obvious thing to point to is environmental factors: how your parents teach you to view the world, what interests and ideas you come into contact with at what points in your life, how you interact with other people and what kind of people you are able to find, where you live, what experiences are accessible to you and what you choose to do with them. That last part is tricky, because people's choices are, not constrained exactly, but heavily influenced by environment. For example, my love of science was influenced by where I grew up, and the scientific environment I was steeped in from a young age. Different people in the same circumstance, though, may eventually turn away from that or turn towards it; where I turned towards physics, I know others who grew up in the same place I did that went to do other things. So environment is a factor, but not a deterministic one per se.

What about the experiences that you have available to you? Most people feel that their job and hobbies define a large part of who they are, but how did they choose a certain career path or a way to fill free time? The activities people see when they are young and impressionable are somewhat arbitrary, and definitely a function of your geographic location, family income, and social circle. I would argue, though, that many people choose activities to spend time on (whether they are professional or amateur) as expressions of their identity, and even within a certain activity there is generally a lot of room for expression. For example, I take pictures, and I have friends who also take pictures, and our pictures are very different in tone and content. We have chosen the same activity, probably for some of the same reasons, but applied distinct philosophies to it that reflect our differing identities. Now, you could probably argue that there are categories of activities--expressive, appreciative, social, logical--and that, if a person doesn't have access to an entire class of activity, it restricts how they will find to express their identity. People don't get the same thing out of painting that they do out of chess. Does that make their identity fundamentally different than it would have been otherwise? Short-term, certainly, long-term, I am not sure.

The thing about identity is, as much as it is cumulative and carries baggage from things that happened a long time ago into the present, it is also more flexible than you might think. I think it's both freeing and inspiring to view life as a series of challenges and discoveries in which you can change your approach mid-game if you like. Once you have more information and experiences than you did early on, there is always another opportunity to do things better, to be closer to the person that you want to be, and to learn more about yourself, others, and the world. Even if you feel stuck in a rut, or locked in to behavior you don't like, or corralled into actions that feel too compromising to your ideals, there is always a chance to change that. Change takes time but it's always an option, until you get to the point where your identity expresses what you want to perfectly. Assuming that such a point is actually achievable, but even if it isn't, I think the journey is worthwhile.
clevermynnie: (Default)
This is rather silly. But the BBC developed a series of questions that were supposedly influenced by recent scientific findings about gender differences, to tell you what the gender of your brain is. My respect for the studies they cite went out the window when they trotted out the canard about women using more words each day than men do, and it's kind of funny that their descriptions of what your results mean don't match the averages on the tests for men and women. Like, they will say men are in this range, women are in this range, and then you look at the male/female averages and it's the same, or outside both those ranges! Also I would want to see a more complex mapping that took age into account, if it makes a difference like they say it does. But I have to admit it's still kind of a fun little test, with spatial reasoning, facial recognition, and other tasks. It's interesting to see how you score even if their generalizations about it are probably wrong. My results are below, with my remarks in italics... you might not want to look if you are interested in answering the questions yourself.

my results )


Mar. 7th, 2010 09:49 am
clevermynnie: (I see beauty)
I have been thinking about what I want out of friendships. Not so much, "what kind of person do I want to be friends with", because that's easy enough to describe, but what do I want out of the sort of relationships I tend to pursue? The easy definition is that I seek relationships where I enjoy my interactions with the person and find value in our time together, but why do I value them over others?

Part of it is that I want to be understood, probably a common enough desire. I don't hide much about myself, but there are things I don't bring up unless they come up, which I guess can contribute to people having a partial view of me and misjudging me. This really bothers me when it happens and I hate dealing with it. In spite of knowing that you can't control what others think, I am often deeply upset by situations where someone has a conception of what I am like that's inaccurate. So the flip side of that is that friends should know you, understand at least some of the things that make you tick, and there is something reassuring about that even if their understanding of who I am as a person is also necessarily distorted from my own because of our varying perspectives.

Another side of it is that I want to feel comfortable around my friends; around acquaintances I am less jokey and less likely to bring up stream of consciousness topics from my mind because I'm anxious about social rejection. But once I get comfortable with people I do those things more, and it feels more like being myself (rather than being a restrained version of myself). I guess this ties in to feeling understood, since most likely the reason that I am restrained around acquaintances is that I'm afraid of being misunderstood.

I also find that I value the friendships that challenge me, where we encourage each other to explore or try difficult or new things. I think this comes pretty naturally from finding people with similar interests, though, so that you get excited when the other person is pursuing something you find interesting, and vice versa. And usually in the same situations it's easy to have fun together because you enjoy the same things.

And of course I like having a support network, for when I need it. It is good to have people who will cheer you up when you are down, or help you out when you could use a hand, and I try to be very available to help my friends if they ask me. This is kind of the fundamental reason why many people pursue friendships beyond just having fun, to have access to resources beyond what they would have on their own.

Rereading over the above, it all seems probably universal and not limited to just me... is there anything that I missed?
clevermynnie: (Default)
I have been at work a lot of today, which has been not bad at all especially since I just managed to squeeze in a run during a gap in data-taking. And it was such a great run! I felt amazing and was very much enjoying the night lights and some music that [ profile] chih recommended.

Recently during a run I finally figured out something about Farscape and why I like it so much. I am big into science fiction in general and have enjoyed a lot of the big sci-fi tv shows, but of those Farscape is absolutely my favorite. While I was watching it, I vigorously recommended it to a lot of people, several of whom watched it themselves and also loved it, and the reasoning I usually gave as to why it was so great is that it took the ideas of sci-fi and went further with them than any other show that I knew of. The example I always gave was what they do to Pilot in the episode DNA Mad Scientist, which would never ever have happened in Star Trek. So in some ways for me initially it was the fact that Farscape is less utopian than other sci-fi... but that wasn't all. The prototype for tv sci-fi is usually a ship of humans and humanoid aliens who are exploring, and usually there is a lot of tech but also a lot of other cultures and ideas about how you could build a society not on a human model. And generally sci-fi (classic sci-fi, at least, along the Star Trek model) spends a lot of time on cultural diversity, when you can and can't apply your morals to other cultures, and what it means to be human. But usually the main characters are part of the majority culture, an outpost of humanity, and the alien cultures are encountered as a sort of Other. In Farscape, though, from the very beginning there is only one human character, one character who has the same cultural background as the viewer, and he is on the outside. Farscape makes humanity the Other, casts us as the savage backwater culture, and goes at the whole thing from the opposite direction. I didn't get that until very recently but it gave Farscape an extra edge that I have not found in any other science fiction tv show.

Today while running I was musing on something I've thought about before, why I'm drawn to things like backpacking and peak-bagging and marathoning which involve a certain element of suffering (and getting through suffering). I mean, I enjoy those things a lot and they have their own benefits and pleasures, but they also involve some pain; I've noticed that if you find a way to have the pleasure without the pain, like backpacking in a flat and mild area, it doesn't appeal to me as much. Part of it is definitely the endorphins and the adrenaline rush of getting through something very physically challenging, and part of it is my general desire to be a badass who does things that are difficult. But I think another important element of it is that I love the bonds you form with people that you suffer through something with. I love going into the wilderness with someone, carrying around all our food and shelter, struggling through hardship, and finally getting back, tired and sore and happy. That's why I have so many fond memories of hanging the bear bag in the dark, or the tent getting buried in the snow, or getting lost hiking in a lightning storm. And I wish I had more running buddies, because I also remember running through the sweltering heat or raging thunderstorms, and the feeling of being at mile 23 and you're not sure you can make it... and I would love to share that with someone. Actually, that's something I miss about team sports; it was pretty awesome to get out of the pool after a hard workout and joke around with everyone else about not being able to lift your arms above your head. I feel that I have a uniquely close relationship to those people that I have suffered through physical pain with. Maybe I should try to start expanding that category... heh heh heh. :D
clevermynnie: (I see beauty)
It's one of my strongest beliefs that people should have an unconstrained set of choices, as full control over their lives as is possible in a system that attempts to give people an equal footing. But to me this also means taking responsibility for the choices that you make; one of my pet peeves is definitely people who complain about some part of their lives but are unwilling to make the choices necessary to make themselves happier. Sometimes our happiness is not entirely under our control, but often it is and all it takes is some careful thought and a willingness to change to make small or large improvements in our lives. I have a hard time understanding why people might not do everything in their power to be happy. One reason that I can think of, though, stems from something I am particularly bad at.

I have written before about stubbornness/perseverance, which I believe to be one of my strongest character traits. I do not let go of things easily, I hang on and figure out how to make it work, and sometimes that has positive results. But it can be a fault as well; another valuable trait is knowing when to quit something, when to re-evaluate and change tactics or change paths altogether. I do not do this well; the example that most readily springs to mind is when I played the violin in high school and was in the orchestra. There were two orchestras, one for freshmen and one for everyone else, but technically you had to audition to get into the higher level orchestra, and the best freshmen every year got to start there. I was in the lower orchestra my freshman year, but then was told by the orchestra director that while I was good enough for the upper level orchestra the next year, he wanted a solid concertmaster, and if I stayed in the lower orchestra for a year and was concertmaster I could move up the following year. It was a crap offer, but I didn't recognize that and I didn't see how else to continue with violin, so I stayed. I did not really enjoy orchestra much that year, and at the end of the year I was sick and almost didn't get the audition piece in time, but auditioned only to be told that I had to stay back another year because I was just not good enough--despite several people who had chairs behind mine getting promoted. I tried to take it to the music department chair, but of course she believed the conductor and not me, and didn't believe that he had lied to me about moving up or told me a variety of contradictory things about where I rated. I can see how from her perspective she thought he was reliable and I was making things up, although this director had lied to the students about many other things, like going to competitions and pieces to play and things like that. In the end I quit, I didn't want to add a second set of music lessons (on top of piano), and I have not played violin seriously since. It's impossible to predict how things will turn out, of course, and if I had stuck it out and moved up then maybe this would have been another story from my life about how perseverance pays off. It doesn't always, though, and sometimes persevering in the face of obvious mistreatment when there is no goal or improvement in sight is a decidedly stupid thing to do. It is a waste of happiness.

I mention this because I am lucky to know several people in various parts of my life who have drastically changed their paths, because it will make them happier even if it is hard. It is hard to look at the path you are on, a career path or a relationship or an identity, and honestly evaluate that it is not right for you or not making you happy even after you have invested a lot of time in it. When you have put time into a degree but it is not in the industry you wanted, or when you are going into debt for something that is mostly stress and pain, or when you are in a relationship that used to be great but is now a dead end, or when you have to change everything to be with someone you love, or when you are strongly rooted in one place but know how much happier you could be if you moved, or when you left school a long time ago but realize that what you really want to do involves going back. I watch these people making these huge changes, and I am blown away by how difficult it must be, not just going against habit and momentum, but picking up and rearranging huge portions of your life because you know you will be happier. Some choices that lead to happiness are simple, some require stubbornness, but some require an incredible amount of imagination and courage, to pick up and go another way. I have not made any choices like that, but I admire the people who do immensely, and I am so grateful to witness people's audacity in defining their own lives.

It fills me with joy to know people who aren't afraid to pursue dreams.
clevermynnie: (Default)
Yesterday there was a big nanoscience event, which had a science fair for 10-12th graders as part of its festivities. They were asking for graduate students to serve as science fair judges, so I volunteered, partly for the free lunch and t-shirt, and partly because it sounded fun.

I ended up judging the projects of 10th graders. None were bad, most were ok and a couple were quite nice. It was a little disappointing that many of the students didn't have particularly insightful answers if you asked them to use their results to predict what would happen if you did a related experiment, because that would have been a great measure of understanding. But hey, they are just tenth graders. There were 6 of us judging and after we had all written down numeric scores, we came together to compare and figure out who won. There was clear agreement on the first-place winner (a person who had a very boring project idea but executed and explained everything quite well), but we had a tie for second and third which I argued pretty hard to break. The person who eventually got second had done every aspect of his project himself, had gotten the idea from an episode of NCIS, came prepared to explain everything (even had a tiny whiteboard and a power supply for his laptop!), and clearly understood everything about his project perfectly. I had ranked him as first, and eventually convinced other people that he at least deserved to win the tie for second.

Comparing him to other students competing brought up something I am sensitive to in science fairs because of where I grew up: the influence of parents. Many of the students, when we asked why they picked their project or how they got access to equipment they used, would say that their parent was a geneticist/electrical engineer/chemist, so they chose a project in gene expression/RF detection/chemical sensing. A lot of them used equipment that no high school would be able to purchase. And I don't think you should punish people for having access to resources and explanations, but what seemed to happen on average was that those people had an incomplete understanding of their projects, and of the methods they were using, whereas a student that conceived their entire project themselves would have on average a much better comprehension of it.

Which got me thinking, I often bemoan that not enough people go into science, but of course children whose parents are scientists or who know adult scientists are more likely to at least think of it as an option open to them. This isn't just true of science; if you see a parent's career in something you are almost certainly more probable to pursue that career yourself (though it's not completely predetermined). A big part of that, in my view, is the worldview that certain careers have, and parents impart those worldviews to their kids, which then means that those kids already have a career aligned with their worldview. That constrains the career choices available to you, though. I wonder if there is any way that education can compensate for this? You are required to learn different subjects but I don't think those subjects are called out as being a lens through which the world can be viewed. And the more lenses you have and understand, the more complete your view of the world. Eventually when you choose a career, in some sense you are choosing the lens that you think is most valuable. But the more you know about, the more choices you have, and the more well-rounded your life experiences may be even once you have chosen something to specialize in.

I wish I knew more about teaching so I had some idea how you show somebody a subject as a worldview. Or, more generally, how to explain the reasoning behind a different worldview.


Oct. 3rd, 2009 10:23 pm
clevermynnie: (Default)
The New York Times has an article about anxiety which I found interesting. They talk about signs in childhood of later anxious behavior, the difference between an anxious persona (outward appearance) versus anima (inward feelings), and about degrees and coping. I've always been more anxious than I would prefer, although I don't find it to be debilitating. But I identified strongly with these paragraphs:

"In the modern world, the anxious temperament does offer certain benefits: caution, introspection, the capacity to work alone. These can be adaptive qualities. Kagan has observed that the high-reactives in his sample tend to avoid the traditional hazards of adolescence. Because they are more restrained than their wilder peers, he says, high-reactive kids are less likely to experiment with drugs, to get pregnant or to drive recklessly. They grow up to be the Felix Ungers of the world, he says, clearing a safe, neat path for the Oscar Madisons.

People with a high-reactive temperament — as long as it doesn’t show itself as a clinical disorder — are generally conscientious and almost obsessively well-prepared. Worriers are likely to be the most thorough workers and the most attentive friends. Someone who worries about being late will plan to get to places early. Someone anxious about giving a public lecture will work harder to prepare for it. Test-taking anxiety can lead to better studying; fear of traveling can lead to careful mapping of transit routes."

Getting places early, mapping carefully, staying on the straight and narrow... yeah, that's me. Though I'll also procrastinate on things that make me anxious, which isn't a great habit. And the worrying is not always productive. :P I do tend to have a lot of contingency plans, though.
clevermynnie: (see us waving)
I wrote this in e-mail correspondence a month ago and liked it, so am posting it here. I ended up summarizing a lot of my views about society and cultural impact. I chafe against labeling something as a "biological fact" (something like, women's supposed lack of ability in math, or men's supposed promiscuity) when it is impossible to separate out these cultural factors.

"Stop blaming society for your problems" seems reasonable but is actually not. No, society is not a person who knocks on your door and tells you what to do. But where do kids learn how to behave? Ignoring the learning from their parents and from their peers, they learn from:

*books (how does this character behave towards other people? how are they perceived? how would I like to be perceived?)
*television and movies (same as above, for fiction, but with more of an element of "how does this person look and how are they perceived based on that?")
*the active news: meaning, actual events reported in the news and the consequences of those events (inflammatory example: a headline like "70% of Military Rapes Unreported")
*the way the news is presented: the values of the reporters and people in the news as they come out in the telling of the story (using the above example, the story can be skewed towards the inappropriateness of women in the military, or the need of women to be protected, or the damage that war inflicts on psyches, etc.)
*the examples of famous people (this can include a biography of Winston Churchill or it can include celebrity gossip about Britney Spears. this is basically voyeurism, observing someone else's choices and life and applying that to your own goals and ideas)

I think there are more than this, but I am not a sociologist or a gender studies person. But my point is that we, as creatures who evolved social behaviors because they increased our survivability, are intensely attuned to observing other people, their reactions to things, subtle cues about their values when they are talking about something, and inherent judgments. We look for these cues in the media, in our culture, in lots of emergent properties of our social system which can be termed "society". And then we interact solely with other people who took in the same cues. The main problem of sexism, and racism and all those other things, is that even if the majority of us as a society decide that something we used to believe is no longer true (for example, that black people are subhuman), we have a terrible time eradicating all the small cues, what I was calling the "messages that society sends", which still state our old value. So we tell black kids, "you are as good as everyone else and can do anything you want!" And then they see representations of successful people, who are all white. They see that the law does not protect them the way it protects white people. They see black people, when they are portrayed in "society", as being poor or run down. And so they receive the message "from society" (even if by law, that message is wrong) because we are still transmitting it in our culture.

Also, while "society" is an emergent property of a group of people, you learn most of your lessons from it when you are very young. If I am 10 years old and learning from the media what values are most prized in women, have I really contributed anything to it yet? Society is a sum of human knowledge in some ways, but it is also heavily rooted in historical knowledge and it takes a lot of time and effort to shift (or technological developments, but that is something different).

As another example, I got told a lot growing up that it is important to be independent, achieving, and that your external appearances don't matter, it's what's inside that counts. Of the women specifically who told me that, how many do you think wear make-up to look prettier? How many have dieted to lose weight, not for health but for looks? This is not to say that those people are bad for doing that, but that those messages are SO internalized that it's very hard to fight against them, even if you know intellectually that your appearance should be unimportant, any time you act on that you get a lot of reinforcement from the world around you (media, culture, peers) that you MUST conform with the prescriptions of your gender.

I'm emphasizing this because unfortunately, parenting may not be enough. It is true that if you sent your kids inegalitarian messages about gender, you should own up to it (for example, if you send your sons the message that women will and should wait on them and organize their lives around them). But it is alarming to me to realize that if I have kids, I will have a very difficult time shielding them from these messages. I can't stop them from reading, from watching tv, from hearing the news, and even if I could do that, they would still be friends with other kids who are influenced by all those things and try to conform to those ideas.

What makes the most sense to me is to also teach your kids how to deconstruct those messages. Jim (my stepfather-in-law) was telling me about a book he had to teach his fourth-graders, because the other fourth-grade teachers strongly wanted to and they have to cover the same material, which had some mild racial stereotypes in it. Jim didn't like it but what he decided to do is have them read it, and then talk about how the book pushes assumptions on you that may not be true. This gives them tools to do this for themselves later, similar to the way that since my dad and I talked about relationships a lot, I later had a lot of relationship tools that ended up being quite useful. It's kind of like, Girl Scouts teaches you lots of different skills, under the umbrella idea of "you can do anything and be awesome". That is also what parenting should be like. But to teach the extra tools, you have to get your kids to earn the starter versions of the "feminist" badge, the "covering" badge, the "gender relations" badge, the "stereotypes in media" badge, and the "identity issues" badge. It is about seeing a structure of thought that you didn't realize was there before, and freeing yourself from it. There are lots of mechanisms to spread this information, and you don't just have to spread it to your kids (you can spread it to your friends, or to your parents), but it seems to be an essential part of parenting.

I guess my point here is that "blaming society" is necessary, because that is a huge part of the problem. And I hear "don't blame society" in other contexts than this e-mail as a way to brush off any attempt to remedy the serious disparities that underlie our culture. But you are right that basically, blaming society is the first step, it's recognizing the problem, and it's what we do from there that determines whether our children get the same messages that we did.

real people

Feb. 5th, 2009 12:50 pm
clevermynnie: (Default)
I was not so happy with all the rhetoric in the recent election about what constitutes a "real American", and a lot of my qualms with societal gender roles is their enforcement of what constitute "real women" and "real men". So I found this open letter to be a perfect summary of my feelings on the topic.


Dec. 10th, 2008 01:11 pm
clevermynnie: (al fresco)
I am busy trying to get things done before leaving for visiting a lot of parents; things done both at work and at home. Part of this is trying to figure out what to give people for Christmas!

I enjoy buying gifts for people. It has always been one of my favorite things about the holidays. I think of them as messages to other people: "I care about you enough to give you something I either spent money on or invested time in making, I want you to be happy in life, and I thought about you and what would make you happy when I was figuring out what to give you." It is hard to give really good gifts, where the person goes, "wow, this is so perfect! I would not have thought to get this but I am excited to have received it!" And sometimes you have what you think is a really good gift but that somehow falls flat; when I was in London a couple years ago I got a very cool and interesting antique gift for someone, which I then held onto for 7 months until Christmas, certain that they would love it. But I got more of a "oh, that's nice" response, which means I misjudged the gift somewhat. That is ok; it happens if you are taking risks with your gifts.

It would be fun to have more money to spend on gifts for people; I can often find something cool for someone that's out of my price range. Sometimes I go for it; a couple years ago I gave someone a gift that cost more than what I usually pay for all my Christmas presents combined. But it was so worth it; it was arguably the best gift I ever gave anyone. But I try to be clever rather than extravagant.

The only thing that can be less than fun about gift-giving this time of year is if it begins to feel like an obligation. I think that for me that happens if I feel I want to get someone a gift, but I can't think of anything really good, so now I just have to think of something. A not-bad gift for someone doesn't make you feel as good about giving it, especially if you like the person but just couldn't think of something. You could argue that, since I feel that gift-giving does not have to be reciprocal or imply gift-debt, if you can't think of a good gift then you should just not get one. Regardless of how much you want the gesture. That's tricky... I could imagine not getting something for one of my friends, maybe, and if I see something at another time of year getting it for them then. But I would feel a need to explain myself. And I can't imagine having Christmas with either of my parents and saying, "yeah, I didn't get you anything because I couldn't think of something good. Thanks for all these presents, though, see you next year!" My parents are relatively easy to shop for, though.

What has been weird is adjusting to getting gifts for Ben's family. This is because I feel a definite obligation to do it (they treat me like family, and are extremely kind to me) but I don't know them as well as any of the other people you could argue I have an obligation to give gifts to. So I am kind of shooting in the dark with them. This used to make me more nervous than it does now; after the wedding I feel less concerned that they might dislike me or be offended by something I do. They made it abundantly clear that they love me, and that's wonderful.

Maybe I should admit here that sometimes, I give the same gift more than once. That is, copies of the same gift. Some might say that proves that a gift is not personal, if you give the same thing to multiple people. It depends! My most-gifted item is the Cheese Board Cookbook, for the following reasons: it is an excellent baked goods cookbook and cheese information source, I have many friends and family who enjoy cooking, it reveals several recipes for Cheese Board pizza which is my favorite pizza ever, and it supports an organization which has made me quite happy. I think I have bought something like 8 of their cookbooks, one for me and the rest as gifts. But everyone I gave it to really liked it and I think most of them have used it.

The only person I've already given gifts to this year is Ben. I got him some shirts, and I got him a shirt for Valentine's Day too. He doesn't like buying clothes and I like helping him be cuter (you could argue that I am the primary beneficiary when he looks hot). He liked what I picked, I would classify these gifts as good, but not amazing.

Feel free to share your good gift stories!


Oct. 7th, 2008 03:51 pm
clevermynnie: (I see beauty)
When I am depressed or really worried about things, probably the most helpful thing I can do is make a list. I love lists, for all occasions, for many reasons, and I have found that spelling out each and every thing to be unhappy or concerned about lifts a huge burden from me, and identifies how I can take action (because worry and guilt are stupid feelings unless you take something constructive from them, do something about it).

I mention this because I just read a great piece on worry, that aligns closely with my own views. There was a recent piece in the same series (the series title is "Shit not to do because it doesn't work") about recognizing destructive patterns, which I also really liked. When I was a kid and my dad and I would talk about relationships or life, he always told me to, before acting, ask myself if my actions would get me closer to what I wanted. If not, no matter how much you want to, don't do it. The links above speak to that in a very coherent way.
clevermynnie: (al fresco)
I saw this article in the NYTimes magazine recently and wanted to post it here, after talking and thinking about suicide recently. It has some interesting discussion of which suicides are preventable and how, especially the idea that many suicides are convenience-driven, and if you take away the opportunity, the impulse doesn't return. For my friend, there were multiple attempts and mental instability, two signs of someone who may put their mind to it and not be stopped. But for many other suicides that doesn't seem to be the case, and lowering the incidence overall is a good thing.
clevermynnie: (Default)
I am getting married in just over a month, which means I have started receiving mail addressed to me with a different last name. And when I am telling people mine and Ben's names for various wedding-related things, people (always women!) exclaim over "my new last name". Except, it isn't.

Read more... )
clevermynnie: (i carry your heart)
Wedding planning progresses, albeit with some bumps along the way. In case you didn't know, a "bump" in wedding plans pretty much always means, "This vendor told me I would have to pay this, but now they are saying it will cost twice as much." The two main assumptions of wedding planners are that since you only intend to get married once, you're willing to be profligate, and since your parents are paying for it, they must have saved lots of money for this day. These are painful when you are trying to be thrifty because you have a little money from your parents, but they thought it was a better idea to pay for college than pay for an extravagant wedding. I have to say, that was solid logic from them.

But while I'm not enjoying the expense, I am excited about lots of aspects of the planning. We'll be getting a catering menu from a Mexican place soon which I'm looking forward to going over, and I'm in the final process of picking a bridesmaid dress with the help of my bridesmaids. I really like the dresses they are choosing from; I would almost want one myself. My mom is making practice cakes and giving them away to my friends in town, and she's also finished with the practice dress (in muslin, which I will fit and then tear apart to be the pattern). All the party aspects are going to be a lot of fun, and I'm also really looking forward to writing the ceremony in collaboration with the wedding party.

Something that has come up a fair amount, though, in my discussions with Ben about different aspects of the wedding, is the idea of being different from standard weddings. We agreed at the beginning that we would do things in a way that made us happy, and try not to feel bound by tradition. But at the same time, we also agreed not to reject anything out of hand because it was 'traditional'. Read more... )


clevermynnie: (Default)

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