Saturday, August 03, 2013

I Lack Gravitas. So Does Janet Yellen.

Writes she, while happily skipping about, cracking jokes and then bursting into feminine tears. 

Well not really.  But I was trying to reduce the gravitas of a post about Al Hunt writing on the relative merits of Janet Yellen and Larry Summers as the next chair of the Federal Reserve.  This is what Hunt wrote:
The public airing of the Summers-versus-Yellen debate has made the selection more controversial. Summers, who served as President Bill Clinton's Treasury secretary and was Obama's chief economic adviser, would face a difficult Senate confirmation.
The president, according to people familiar with his thinking, believes Summers has the experience and expertise to succeed Ben Bernanke. No one doubts Yellen's credentials as an economist, but questions have been raised, mainly by those in the Summers camp, about whether she has the gravitas to manage a financial crisis.
Bolds are mine.

Here's one dictionary definition of gravitas:
1. Substance; weightiness: a frivolous biography that lacks the gravitas of its subject.
2. A serious or dignified demeanor: "Our national father figure needs gravitas, [but] he's pitched himself as the kid brother" (John Leo).
What's the problem with that criticism?  As Matthew Yglesias writes
This is also a great example of why lining up woman validators to vouch for Summers' feminist bona fides won't really answer the charge that sexism is driving the pro-Summers sentiment. The sexism at work here just isn't about whether or not some of Summers' best friends are women. It's about the fact that there's never been a woman leader of a major central bank. Consequently, the social image of a classic central banker is necessarily the image of a man.As a result, a 60-something woman who's served on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, chaired the Council of Economic Advisors, led the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, and become Vice Chair of the Fed Board can be dismissed as lacking "gravitas" compared to an alternate candidate who on paper seems less qualified. If a woman can't acquire the necessary "gravitas" to do the job by having Yellen's career, then what exactly could she do?
Indeed. I guess Yellen could try to figure out how she could look more weighty, filled with more substance or how she could acquire a more dignified demeanor.  But if being qualified is insufficient I'm not sure what might work.  Wearing a Larry Summers mask?

The point of this post is not to debate the relative advantages of these two candidates as individual professionals.  It's to demonstrate how seemingly gender-neutral criticisms might not be so neutral, after all, if they are used differently about men and women, say.

Friday, August 02, 2013

A Trivial Feminist Post

I specialize in those.  This one is about two things.  First, what  USA Today wrote about Simon Cowell yesterday:

'X Factor' creator Simon Cowell will be the only man on the four-judge panel.

Now do a gender reversal on that and various television panels.  Nobody would write about a woman that she was the only woman on a four-judge panel, mostly because having one woman on such a panel looks like equality to most of us.  That's what we are used to.  Three guys and one gal is fair representation, three gals and one guy is a chick-fest.

Second,  here's a fun video about Bill O'Reilly and  James Garfield Carville, two older guys, arguing about what causes teenage pregnancy in the US.  What O'Reilly says is hilariously inane, naturally.  But note that having two older guys as the experts on this topic might not be noticeable because we are used to the idea of older white guys as the experts on everything.  And note how O'Reilly starts the segment by turning a question about heterosexual intercourse into something that is only about gate-keeping by teenage girls.  It takes two to tango but teenage heterosexual sex is only about the gurlz:

The Whip, Not The Carrot. The American Conservative Approach to Education.

That whip-and-carrot business applies to the old adage about how to make a donkey or a horse do your bidding.  American conservatives like the negative enforcement (whip) applied to schools, to get better workers for their global corporations.  The liberals they see as the carrot brigade, not demanding anything from  children at all but offering them succulent carrots for no work.

The equivalent of the whip are standardized tests when it comes to students.  When it comes to teachers, everything is the whip.  I've found this fascinating.  Teachers should be willing to take lower and lower pay, longer and longer working days and a much reduced retirement package, while being judged (often quite mercilessly) by how well students do in standardized tests.*

Atrios linked to a fun piece about the importance of standardized tests by Norman R. Augustine,  a former chairman and chief executive of Lockheed Martin Corp.. 

This is fun, because education is actually a skill which requires years of training and such, except in the US where business bosses know better how to make children learn than those who dedicate their lives to acquiring that skill!  It's hilarious.  Or would be, if education wasn't one of the most crucial things we humans do in this world for the sake of the posterity.

I'm not against standardized testing which compare how students are doing.  I'm very much against using MULTIPLE-CHOICE standardized tests to determine which students will thrive and which students will be condemned to a lesser life, or using such tests to determine which teachers should earn more and which teachers should be fired.

This is because multiple-choice tests are a rotten measuring device.  Real national tests should make students write essay answers, tested by someone outside the school system.  Real national tests should make students show all their work in mathematics and science tests.  Even if such tests were routinely performed, we should remember that they don't measure all aspects of learning and that they don't encourage creativity or necessarily measure the skills that students need for life.

In short, standardized tests have only limited benefits.  But they are a very good whip for those who think that the schools in the US can be beaten into shape. 

They are even better for those who don't really want to pay anything much for education and then must think of some other reason than lack of funds spent on the poorest (and most needy) school districts for the less-than-wonderful performance of US students in international comparisons.

To see what Mr. Augustine truly thinks about education is visible in his first sentences if you remember that he begins by presenting the views he opposes:
The chief problem with U.S. schools apparently isn’t high dropout rates or underqualified teachers but standardized testing. This is the only conclusion that can be drawn from the push by parents and teachers in Buffalo, Philadelphia, Seattle and elsewhere to help students opt out of taking standardized tests.
Members of this burgeoning anti-test movement fail to grasp testing’s valuable role in motivating and guiding students and teachers. Preparing young Americans for success in the global economy will require our schools to improve, not abolish, academic standards.
So it's dropout rates and underqualified teachers that Mr. Augustine sees as the real problem.  Ironically enough, both of these problems are amenable to the use of funds!  But nope, adding more money to encourage more motivated and better prepared students in teaching is out  of question, because it would be a carrot.  We need to whip, whip and whip.  Likewise, dropout rates correlate directly with poverty, and positive discrimination (more funds for poorer schools, more attention to students in trouble) would work there, too.  If it wasn't a carrot, that is.

All this is a bit muddled, and I apologize for this.  I just got back from my Finnish vacation. 

But while there, I talked to several teachers.  They are highly respected in their communities.  They come from the top ten percent of university students.  They get paid a salary commensurable with that.  They are given lots of freedom to experiment with individual students, they spend a lot of time in teacher education and they work in teams when necessary.  Class sizes are small.  National exams are obligatory for students only at the point of leaving the school system.  Other standardized exams are optional, though most teachers opt to have them.

And the Finnish schools right now do extremely well in international comparisons. 

It is true, as the critics say, that Finland is a more homogeneous country than the US and that it has much more equal incomes.  It is also true that teaching in the US with its greater heterogeneity and income inequality is a far bigger challenge, and that the "Finnish Miracle" may not work out as well with increased immigration and the cultural and language differences it entails.

But does this mean that the US has nothing to learn from Finland?  American conservatives seem to think so.  Better just apply a bigger and bigger whip, rather than those wussy carrots.

It's as if the American exceptionalism applies even here!  Americans work better than whipped, the lesser nations may thrive on carrots.  Something of that sort?

My point is, naturally, that even if the US couldn't achieve the Finnish results everywhere it might improve by adopting the Finnish principles.  The most important of them is that education is a skill, something to value, something that requires work to learn and to apply.  Far too many Americans appear to think that we can learn all we need about educating little children from the successes and failures of WalMart or General Motors.

I'm the first to admit that education is difficult, that families matter greatly, that values and culture, including the popular culture, matter greatly.  Much of education is an art, not a science.  But I'm quite certain that the principles of basic market models are not the proper way of looking at education.  Indeed, education has always been one of the industries where nonprofits and charitable organizations and other not-for-profit arrangements have been dominant, and there is a reason for it.

That reason is the difficulty of the job, the problems in defining and measuring the quality of education and the fact that the "production process" in education is a very collaborative one:  Everything that happens to a child affects it and the child herself affects it, too.  Finally, different children thrive on different incentives and need different amounts of attention.  Some need more whip than carrot, others the reverse.  But ideally education should be a preparation for life, not a preparation for becoming a better cog in the organizations of multinational corporations.

Juxtapose that with the usual American conservative approach to education where the main attack is against teachers' unions, teachers' benefits and so on, and where vouchers and magnet schools etc. are intended to somehow alter education into a more functioning system. 

It's an odd combination of pro-market ideas (school choice, focus on private schools) and anti-market ideas (forcing teacher salaries down outside the marketplace).  What it does share with the most clawed and fanged business is the rat-race focus:  If only we can make the rats run faster, nobody needs to pay much at all to fix the problems. 

As a corollary of that, schools must get rid of breaks, athletics, art and music, to become little factories where students on the assembly lines get those pass-the-test chips installed by minimum pay workers.

This is not going to work, by the way, but at least someone gets to wield the whip, and there's a certain satisfaction in that.

*All this has a feminist connection:  In the past educated American women were steered into just a few possible careers and one of them was teaching.  The sex-segregation of occupations meant, among many things, that the Americans could get very good teachers for relatively low pay.  That changed when other career opportunities opened for women, but the conservative critics have never really understood this nor the fact that the shorter working days and longer vacations are the necessary trade-offs for the lower pay for many women.  They allow work and the care of minor children.  If the pay is kept the same or reduced while the annual working hours are increased, that benefit disappears, and fewer women will become teachers.  This market-aspect of education is oddly ignored in the conservative theories.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Vacation Post !!: Back From Vacation

I'm happy to see you all but not so happy right now otherwise.  A humongous plant has sprouted from seed to five feet in four weeks, in the middle of the lawn.  This means nobody is unreplacable.
Which is not a word but I'm still working two or three language centers.

Good things I think should be imported to the US:  Department store escalators which don't move until someone actually uses them.  Toilets which have a smaller flush for pee, a bigger flush for poo and little shower attachments in case you wish to tidy your bottom end even more. 

These are common in public places.  And of course young dads much more involved with their children, probably because of the daddy leave which the US doesn't have at all.  It encourages bonding and all that stuff.

I also learned that the US banking and credit card systems are in stone ages, compared to Finland.  Oddly enough, that never stopped the US markets from breaking the world markets.  So strong are the claws of the power of the few.

That last post below is really very useful, by the way.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

My List on How To Analyze Research Popularizations

I think it's a good list, and offer it here for free!  Isn't that wonderful?

I have several posts on similar stuff and I'm planning to put them all together on my website one day so that the pearls I dropped into the compost of my archives don't get completely lost.

The original post is called A Nasty Post.  There are lots of those in my archives and most of them are pretty sharp, says she, modestly.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Feminism Is Dead. Take 4358. A Re-Posting.

(Originally posted here)

These stories are as regular as a menstrual cycle, you know.  And about as exciting.  Feminism is dead so often that I wonder what kind of a zombie it must be to be able to die again and again.

Another interesting aspect of these stories is that they always focus on the upper class women,  mostly white ones and with lots of education.  Yet even such highly blessed women toss their careers into the corner!  They did so in the early 2000s, they did so in the 1990s, and now they do it in 2013.

The novel aspect of these newest death throes is that the article mentions a famous evolutionary psychologist, David Buss, who firmly believes in the innateness of sex roles.  You see, our prehistoric women suddenly don't seem to have been gatherers, after all,  who might have provided most of the calories in that gathering/hunting mix but cavewives:

All those bachelors’ vows of future bathroom cleanings, it turns out, may be no more than a contemporary mating call. “People espouse equality because they conform to the current normative values of our culture,” says University of Texas evolutionary psychologist David Buss. “Any man who did not do so would alienate many women—yes, espousing values is partly a mating tactic, and this is just one example.” At least in one area, there’s scant penalty for this bait and switch. Last year, sociologists at the University of Washington found that the less cooking, cleaning, and laundry a married man does, the more frequently he gets laid.
 “My sense,” says Buss, “is that younger women are more open to the idea that there might exist evolved psychological gender differences.” Among my friends, many women behave as though the evolutionary imperative extends not just to birthing and breast-­feeding but to administrative household tasks as well, as if only they can properly plan birthday parties, make doctors’ appointments, wrap presents, communicate with the teacher, buy the new school shoes. A number of those I spoke to for this article reminded me of a 2010 British study showing that men lack the same mental bandwidth for multitasking as women.

In other words, women belong in the home because of evolution.  That cannot be proved, of course, but it's enough if women believe in it, because then they will stay at home. Or will feel guilt for not doing so.

I am bored with these kinds of stories as is pretty apparent from what I wrote above.  The reason is this:

Not all women are ambitious in the job sense.  Not all women want those kinds of jobs.  But then neither do all men.  The society condones the lack of ambition in women but disapproves of it in men.  Thus, the number of men who would report a desire to be a stay-at-home-dad will probably be lower than the number of men who really would prefer to be a stay-at-home-dad, and to some extent the reverse is true for women.

The point is that we have different talents and different desires.  And the previous paragraph could equally well have been written by saying that not all women are suited to taking care of small children or wish to do that full-time, even if they love their own children more than anything in the world.  And the same applies for men.  And so on.

But the stories are not written that way.  They are written to apply to all women on one side, and all men on the other side.  Thus, all men obviously somehow wish to work in the labor force 24/7 and all women obviously get kidnapped by their maternal instincts and toss their jobs overboard if they possibly can.

Thus, the basic setup is this:  Men will work in the office or the factory or in the fields 24/7, no matter what.  If that is taken as a given, how should women behave? 

The other reason I'm utterly bored with these kinds of stories is that the way labor markets are arranged is kept as the invisible elephant in them.  Those stresses the article speaks about are arranged stresses, largely caused by impossible expectations about working hours and the absence of good childcare and proper vacation time.

Though I must admit that this story is slightly more interesting than the usual one because it hints at the idea that the ability to organize children's birthdays and the ability to cook and clean is somehow genetically wired in women but not in men.  Which is unlikely when you consider that the most famous people in those types of fields tend to be men.  Like the most famous chefs.  Even the most famous childcare experts of the past are men.

We should also see enormous catastrophies in the families of all single fathers.  If men lack the necessary hard-wiring to remember children's physician and dentist appointments, how come the studies I've seen of single-father families suggest that those fathers do a pretty good job, on average?

So I fell for this "controversial" post in the way it was intended:  Get a lot of links, create a lot of discussion, and the advertising income will flow in!  Bad Echidne.  She will get no chocolate mousse today.
Added later:  This is a good take on the article.

I should go through my archives and put together all the posts about the death of feminism!  It tends to die several times every year, poor thing.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Labiaplasty. Why on Earth? A Re-Posting

(Originally posted here.)

This story about labiaplasty may not describe a truly common new type of surgery, but that something called vaginal rejuvenation surgery exists is pretty astonishing stuff.  This is cosmetic surgery, for the most part, not surgery to correct something which causes physical pain or discomfort:

While labiaplasty is increasingly popular, it remains controversial, sparking debate within the medical profession broadly, among specialists, and in wider society. The surgery is relatively unregulated and frequently botched, as indicated by the staggering number of clinics that advertise discreet revisions of bungled previous surgeries. At the same time, detractors claim that women have been manipulated by the media to believe in a mythical “perfect vagina.” Some women undergo labiaplasty for medical or practical reasons—large labia can cause irritation and pain during sex and exercise—but the vast majority elect to undergo the surgery for cosmetic purposes, anxious to achieve a more attractive genital area. The desired “look” is consistently that of a smaller, less obtruding vulva, with “neat,” even labia, and this “streamlined” ideal is becoming increasingly minimalist.
“But I kept getting patients who wanted almost all of it off. They would come in and say, I want a ‘Barbie.’ So I developed a procedure that would give them this comfortable, athletic, petite look, safely.”
Dr. Red Alinsod, a urogynecologist in Laguna Beach, California, claims that his most requested surgical procedure is the Barbie: a procedure that excises the entire labia minora. This results in a “clamshell” aesthetic: a smooth genital area, the outer labia appearing “sealed” together with no labia minora protrusion. Alinsod tells me he invented the Barbie in 2005. “I had been doing more conservative labiaplasties before then,” he says. “But I kept getting patients who wanted almost all of it off. They would come in and say, I want a ‘Barbie.’ So I developed a procedure that would give them this comfortable, athletic, petite look, safely.”

Bolds are mine, to make you read the sentences I want you to read!

First, what is this media which manipulates women into believing in a mythical "perfect vagina?"  Could its name possible begin with the letter "p", continue with the letter "o" and end with the letters "r" and "n?"  Duh, that is really completely obvious.  For most women, relatively few people see their labia in the first place and doctors are unlikely to make comments about how they look.

When I wrote "why on earth?" in the title I meant that.  Why on earth do women think that they need to have their genital area trimmed to look like that of a prepubescent girl?  Because that's what the "Barbie look" implies, unless we wish to be literal and assume that women should look like a doll which doesn't have any genitals at all.

The answer cannot be in the advent of the Barbie doll herself.  Barbie is pretty old and labiaplasty as a cosmetic operation is fairly recent.  No, this has to do with the spread of pron views about how women ought to look.  Female pron actors may have had such surgery themselves to increase camera access.  Shaving the pubic area may have some of its (now shaved) roots in the same need for camera access.

It's my guess that "what is normal" in female genitals has become partly defined by pron.  That actors in pron may not be "normal" in the sense of not-surgically-treated-or-enhanced can be forgotten because we don't really talk about this stuff.  Pron is everywhere but consumed in privacy.  Impressions from pron are not tested in discussions and debates.

Another reason to ask "why on earth" has to do with the fact that surgeries are not without risks.  Thus, it's fair to ask why at least some women find those risks worth taking.  What has happened in their lives?  Are their vaginas and labias actually any different than the normal vaginas and labias, when defined not by beauty standards but by actual frequencies in the real world?  What or who has made them want such surgery?

These are not just righteous feminazi questions, my friends.  We can all be extremely vulnerable to any intimate criticisms and since women don't usually (or ever?) compare their labias with other women, no single woman can really know if criticisms of how her labia or vagina looks has any kind of validity (defined on whatever value system you wish or none).  So we should really talk about it, before someone dies in that surgery, for cosmetic reasons.

Third, why is the desired look that of a prepubescent girl?  I already stated that this most likely comes from pron.  But the question also links to how the question of "normality" oddly changes when women's bodies are the field.  We forget what "normal" breasts look like when so many celebrities have artificial breasts.  Artificial becomes the normal.  If you don't happen to match that artificial new-normal norm, then you need to have surgery.

“Women wanna reduce as much as possible while still looking normal,” he says. To this end, he developed the “Alter labia contouring” procedure. Rather than simply trimming or amputating the labia, this technique removes a wedge-shaped segment of tissue from the central section of each inner lip, then sutures the upper and lower edges of the excision together, creating smaller labia from the remaining tissue. The idea is to reduce the size of the labia while preserving the normal color and contour of the labia edge.
Fourth, and finally, isn't it possible that there is a reason for the labia?  Something to do with health and well-being, perhaps?  I have no idea if that's the case, but in general we humans are not terribly eager to cut out parts which our bodies might actually use for something.

None of this is exactly new when it comes to cutting and shaping the female body.  The cutting of  the clitoris and the labia, in Female Genital Mutilation  is an obvious example of such unnecessary surgery, and so are the anecdotes about Victorian women trimming their lower ribs to attain narrower waists or the Chinese foot-binding.  But I'm hoping that we can grow out of such practices.