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 Field 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.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Economics Tuesday 5: On Austerity

Or the idea that austerity is a good economic policy to get us rapidly out of recessions.  Or the idea that austerity policies can be used as a disguise to dismantle the welfare states all over the world.  Or the idea that austerity policies are good for us because we are all sinners and we deserve to be punished for those sins.

This post has links to theories which try to explain how austerity policies would work.  I recommend reading those.  The experience for the reader is of "the-emperor's-new-clothes" type.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Research Monday 5: The Baumeister Chronicles

I wrote about Roy Baumeister in 2012, because of the paper he then published together with Kathleen Vohs.  It's worth coming back to his general work as it is a very important basic pillar of the belief systems among some of the angriest MRAs. 

For example, I've recently read several comments explaining that civilization, roads, bridges, art and science all belong to men and so do corporations:  Men, and men alone created them.  For women to just demand entry into something they never contributed to (honest, that's what those guys believe:  that women never worked, never gave birth or cared for children, never created art etc.) is the greatest unfairness ever. 

All this is based on Baumeister's arguments.  By the way, John Tierney of the New York Times eagerly disseminated them here and here.

For these reasons, it's useful to see what Baumeister's arguments are.  The first post I wrote is here, the second here and the third here.  A very important additional post about the idea that men have evolved more than women (which both Tierney and Baumeister implicitly support) can be found here.

Friday, August 08, 2014

A Few Old Rants, Re-Heated

Because I still think these are good rants.  This one is about the definition of political participation, this one is about my eternal frustration with the research popularizers and this one is about the unattainable perfection which we are, nevertheless, expected to try to attain.