Saturday, February 26, 2005

On Racing Calves

This old lady I knew (well, ok, my grandmother) said that debating a fool is as profitable as trying to have a speed race with a calf. (If you find this mysterious you have never tried to catch a calf who doesn't want to be caught. The calf zigzags and kicks you with its hindlegs.)

This has hidden relevance for the next post about turds and trolls, because trolls are defined by their very inability to debate logically. To enter such a debate is foolish, yet to stay out of it is very hard if you are a competitive know-it-all type goddess. But out of it you must stay if you want to stay sane, because a troll will not follow any of the usual debating rules such as presenting actual evidence to back arguments or accepting your evidence in return. Trolls also turn the issue upside down in the middle of the debate or move on to some totally unrelated topic. If all else fails trolls attack you for saying something you never said or for being responsible for everything a certain ill-defined and possibly nonexistent group of individuals has ever done. Or they accuse you for not having explained everything that ever happened.

It's very tiresome and utterly pointless. It's also pretty similar to the O'Reilly show or Limbaugh's tirades or Ann Coulter's writings. None of these have much to do with real debates. Real debates can be interesting and even enlightening but trollabates are neither. Sadly, though, real debates are getting increasingly rare.

Many so-called debates are pre-orchestrated to come across as prize fights: pick an issue and then find two people with extreme and opposite opinions on the issue. They must express strong emotions and bombard each other with their absolutist messages. The audience is then supposed to conclude who is right and which side won.

This is rubbish, of course. It's quite possible that a middle-of-the-road position would be the most correct one or that the person who seems to win is just a better debater or that the whole issue is framed badly. It's even possible that such an adversary setup will not enlighten us at all, whereas a cooperative "fill-in-the-missing-pieces-of-the-puzzle" approach might get us somewhere. In any case, I'm very sceptical about the ability of an uninformed public to learn anything from most debates the way they are currently run.

Not that education is the objective of most staged debates. Rather, the idea is that the audience will relish the fighting and not get bored. Debating as entertainment.

How Wingnut Trolls Argue

Usually this topic would be beneath my interest, but this particular comment on Eschaton is really hilarious:

I can't imagine why real Americans would accuse you people of being seditious turds

It's intended to be read in a satirical voice, I presume. "Real Americans" is wingnut for, well, wingnuts. But the really odd part is the "seditious turds" bit. How can turds be seditious? They don't do much anything, except float down passively in the stream of water. And if they were seditious, what would they rebel against? The hole from which they emerged?

Friday, February 25, 2005

Friday Embroidery Blogging

Fallen Angel Posted by Hello

This is an embroidery joke. The red things on the angel's arms are supposed to be long evening gloves all wrinkled up. You can see more technical details by clicking on the picture. Sorry about the reflection from the glass. I forgot to remove it again.

A Funny Thought for the Day

Jeff Gannon has a new blog (no, I'm not going to link to it). Guess what it is called?

A Voice of the New Media


On Sex and Power

Robin Givhan in the Washington Post muses on the way Condoleezza Rice is dressed:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived at the Wiesbaden Army Airfield on Wednesday dressed all in black. She was wearing a black skirt that hit just above the knee, and it was topped with a black coat that fell to mid-calf. The coat, with its seven gold buttons running down the front and its band collar, called to mind a Marine's dress uniform or the "save humanity" ensemble worn by Keanu Reeves in "The Matrix."

As Rice walked out to greet the troops, the coat blew open in a rather swashbuckling way to reveal the top of a pair of knee-high boots. The boots had a high, slender heel that is not particularly practical. But it is a popular silhouette because it tends to elongate and flatter the leg. In short, the boots are sexy.

Givhan then goes on to interpret this outfit as the way a woman can look powerful:

Rice boldly eschewed the typical fare chosen by powerful American women on the world stage. She was not wearing a bland suit with a loose-fitting skirt and short boxy jacket with a pair of sensible pumps. She did not cloak her power in photogenic hues, a feminine brooch and a non-threatening aesthetic. Rice looked as though she was prepared to talk tough, knock heads and do a freeze-frame "Matrix" jump kick if necessary. Who wouldn't give her ensemble a double take -- all the while hoping not to rub her the wrong way?

Rice's coat and boots speak of sex and power -- such a volatile combination, and one that in political circles rarely leads to anything but scandal. When looking at the image of Rice in Wiesbaden, the mind searches for ways to put it all into context. It turns to fiction, to caricature. To shadowy daydreams. Dominatrix! It is as though sex and power can only co-exist in a fantasy. When a woman combines them in the real world, stubborn stereotypes have her power devolving into a form that is purely sexual.

Rice challenges expectations and assumptions. There is undeniable authority in her long black jacket with its severe details and menacing silhouette. The darkness lends an air of mystery and foreboding. Black is the color of intellectualism, of abstinence, of penitence. If there is any symbolism to be gleaned from Rice's stark garments, it is that she is tough and focused enough for whatever task is at hand.

A dominatrix indeed...

Givhan's article is annoying in that it drapes the issue of female power into an issue of clothing, as if we could all be powerful by just finding the right things to wear. On the other hand, she (or he?) has a point: there is no generally accepted way for a woman in power to dress. But to borrow from the sexual arena seems a big mistake to me, because so many of the sexual signs of female power make women into passive objects of adulation, not into active leaders.

Take the high heels that Givhan mentions:

Countless essays and books have been written about the erotic nature of high heels. There is no need to reiterate in detail the reasons why so many women swear by uncomfortable three-inch heels and why so many men are happy that they do. Heels change the way a woman walks, forcing her hips to sway. They alter her posture in myriad enticing ways, all of which are politically incorrect to discuss.

The politically incorrect parts probably have to do with the fact that a woman in high heels is showing her availability for sex in two ways: first, her pelvis is tilted to receive rear-entry and second, she is clearly unable to run away. Or so I imagine. Though high heels are also excellent weapons of self-defense, especially if used against the eyes of the attacker. Just kidding, just kidding! Don't quote me on any of this and don't try any of this at home.

I have never been able to learn how to walk in high heels, so whenever I wear them I end up barefoot, carrying the damn things strapped together around my neck. Which gives me an idea for power-dressing women: how about a pair of stiletto heels hanging from a belt? Or better still, a sword?

Bush and Putin Holding Hands

Not really. It's more like each trying to be the top, but on the whole they come across as almost equally stupid. Almost, because it's impossible to beat Bush. Just listen to these comments by our dear leader:

"Strong countries are built by developing strong democracies," Bush said he told Putin. "I think Vladimir heard me loud and clear."
"This is the kind of fellow who, when he says `Yes,' he means yes, and when he says `No,' he means no," Bush said.

But Putin did almost as well in the stupidity competition:

"I'm not the minister of propaganda," Putin said, standing alongside Bush at a news conference.

And these guys are the leaders of the so-called free world? Give me a break.

Well, you can't give me a break. It just goes on and on. This bit is especially interesting:

Bush was challenged as well, by a Russian journalist who asked about "violations of the rights of journalists in the United States" without giving specifics.

Bush seemed irritated. He said he talked with Putin about Russian press freedom and that the Russian leader asked in turn about practices in the United States.

"People do get fired in American press," the president said, adding that they get fired by editors or producers or others -- not by government.

But while saying that a free press is the sign of a healthy society, Bush added, "Obviously there has got to be constraints. There's got to be truth."

And how do we get that truth, hmh? By paying money to journalists to be the government mouthpieces? By giving press passes to nonjournalists? I guess so.

It is interesting that Bush seemed irritated. He fares poorly under any kind of criticism and that is perhaps why he has walled himself into a little circle of yes-men and yes-women. Frightening, isn't it? Nothing is so important as good and open criticism on the highest levels of government but we might not be getting any of that.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Why Blog?

Atrios has an interesting post on the topic of blogging, on what we want to get from it and on how to do it well. At the end of the post he gives advice to new bloggers:

1) Don't send me an email saying "read my blog." I won't. If you want to get my interest, send me something interesting. If you have something interesting, it'll get noticed and linked. Have enough interesting things, people will start coming back on their own to look for it, and you'll have a larger regular readership.

2) What's interesting? Your opinion on stuff by itself isn't really interesting to anyone except your friends. If you're funny, or you write well, or you actually know something, or can make a good argument, or are good at unearthing interesting and relevant tidbits, that's interesting.

3) One things blogs do is act as news aggregators/filters and places for discussion. You may be an excellent news aggregator/filter, but that's a pretty crowded market. That's one place where being an early entrant helps. If you want to distinguish your blog, you need to have some additional interesting original content.

4) Don't create a spam list and send out every blog post to the list. We all get too much email. Send me something you think that I would be interested in. It's personal. I don't cover every issue under the sun. Nobody else does either.

5) Don't just focus on trying to get a link from me, or Kos, or Instapundit, or whatever. If you have something good, send it to blogs with somewhat less, but still decent traffic. They probably get less email than we do. s

6) Establishing a large regular readership takes a lot of time, no matter how brilliant and persistent you are. And, persistence is key. While some fairly popular bloggers post inconsistently, most people with a large regular readership post at least daily. People will click on your site more often if they think there's a good chance there will be something new to look at.

My first emotional reaction to this advice was that I'd never have started blogging if I had really thought it out carefully. This has something to do with my upbringing which consisted of a lot of discouragement against the dreadful possibility of gaining a big head (So you ranked number one in the country? Big deal. They're all crazy.) But more generally, how do we ever know if we have something interesting to say without trying to say it?

My second reaction was a great depression over my inability to market my blog. I'm really bad at it, never mind my MBA. Once every six months or so I send out two feeble e-mails to Famous People and that's about it, so it's a relief to hear that most e-mails go unread anyway. Artful Asp will take on the marketing of the blog in the summer when she has more time (the snake school has a vacation then), and she's planning t-shirts and keyrings and stuff. I'm looking forward to the great influx of money and new readers that I will gain then.

What Atrios doesn't mention in his description of what might be interest to the readers is that some topics may not be discussed very much. If you feel strongly about one of those topics you can have a valid blogging voice even if you are not the greatest writer or the funniest person or otherwise really fascinating. Or that's what I hope, anyway, given that this was my original impetus for blogging.

The really interesting question is why people blog at all, and the answer to this question determines how suitable Atrios's advice is. If you want to write a general political blog with a high readership, go on and follow his advice. If, however, you are more interested in talking to a particular group of people than the general blogistan, you need to modify the advice accordingly. For example, the feminist blogs have their own internal relationships and if you write on feminism it may make more sense to e-mail blogs in that group than one of the big political blogs.

Skippy said somewhere that the only valid reason for blogging is when one must. This is like the old argument for writing: that you should write only if you can't do the alternatives. Though this is not the whole truth there is something to the idea that you should absolutely love to blog. If you don't, the days when you get lots of trolls and when your writing stinks will be too hard to take, especially if you have bothersome details such as work-for-money to take care of. And if you love blogging the numbers and the fame are not so important. They are both fickle gods, anyway. They also quickly turn into hollow gods if you don't love blogging, whereas the love of the work itself will keep you going even if nobody reads you at all.

It's Kansas, Dorothy!

Via Atrios I learn about the incredible things going on in Kansas:

Attorney General Phill Kline is seeking the complete medical records of nearly 90 women who received late-term abortions to search for evidence of crimes, according to court documents.

The secret investigation began in October, according to written legal arguments filed Tuesday by two medical clinics that are opposing Kline's effort. They are asking the Kansas Supreme Court to intercede, saying if it doesn't, "a woman who exercised her constitutional right to privacy" could find government agents knocking at her door.

Kline, an abortion opponent, scheduled a news conference for Thursday afternoon, and his office said he would discuss "questions raised relating to child rape and abortion in Kansas."

The records include the patients' names, medical histories, birth control practises and psychological profiles.

This smells to high heavens. Late-term abortions are almost always abortions where something has gone horribly wrong with the fetus. Going through one of those is not something taken lightly, and the families involved have severe traumas. Then someone comes digging for details about their sex lives!

It's yet another step in our road to Gillead, another step in harassing and stigmatizing anyone who has had an abortion. But to do it to those parents who have gone through one of the most painful experiences parents can have is plain wrong and plain disgusting.

There are much more productive ways for going after child rape than such random searches in medical files.

Today's Action Alert

Today's Action Comes from the NRDC. Visit their webpage at and click on:

"Stop Global Mercury Pollution The U.S. should lead the way," to send an email to the State Department asking them to adopt meaningful goals for reducing mercury pollution. Or, copy and send the sample letter below.


February 24, 2005

Claudia A. McMurray
Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Environment
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street NW
Washington, DC 20520

The Bush administration has frequently pointed to the fact that much of our mercury pollution in the United States comes from abroad. The upcoming United Nations Environment Program meeting in Nairobi provides the first chance to take meaningful action to address this pollution in a coordinated fashion with the rest of the world. But the current U.S. position falls clearly short of the bare minimum required to make any substantial progress on reducing this harmful pollutant.

The U.S. plan should be greatly strengthened for this meeting. We should adopt goals for reducing mercury use by 50 percent by 2010 and 75 percent by 2015. We should promote a policy to phase out mercury uses across the globe and to put excess mercury into long-term storage rather than selling it into global commerce. Finally, our government should provide technical and financial assistance to countries in the developing world to phase out their current mercury uses, starting with the largest, most dispersive uses for which there are alternatives, particularly in chemical manufacturing and for switches and measuring devices.

The global problem of mercury pollution needs a global solution. The United States should lead the way, and the upcoming UNEP meeting would be a good place to start.



Thanks for taking Today's Action

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Sex Toys

These are toys for sex, either with yourself or with another person. Things like vibrators or handcuffs or whatever catches your fancy. Probably inflatable dolls are a sex toy, too.

Sex toys are dangerous! In many states their use is illegal due to old laws still on books about immoral behavior, though mostly these laws are not enforced. But the state of Alabama has a law explicitly banning the sale of sex toys and the U.S. Supreme Court has just refused to review the constitutionality of the law. This means that states can go on making laws that ban certain private forms of behavior in the name of public morality.

It is odd, especially given that the sale of condoms is quite legal in Alabama, but the sale of vibrators is not. This shows a bias towards fornication, don't you think? Though it's legal to own a vibrator, provided that the user has purchased it out of state.

Cumbersome. This reminds me of the illegal nature of growing opium poppies, yet the seeds are available on top of every poppyseed bagel we eat. Baking doesn't stop the seeds from sprouting, so it would be theoretically possible to have the poppies growing in the yard quite by accident. But the police wouldn't believe this story so you better not try.

Of, By and for Big Business

This is the title of an article by Robert Scheer, one that is well worth reading. A snippet:

In fact, the GOP's legislative calendar looks like a wish list sent over to the White House from the Chamber of Commerce across the street. Senate Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) dropped in there the other day after a breakfast meeting with the president to assure the chamber that its wishes would soon be law. After all, the chamber spent $168 million to push the anti-class-action lawsuit bill along. Still to come this session: raising allowable emissions standards on major pollutants, oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the granddaddy of all corporate payouts, privatization of Social Security.

And getting rid of those pesky consumer lawsuits against medical practitioners and those pesky cancer lawsuits by workers who had to deal with asbestos. Note how the administration has time for all this but not for the Defense of Marriage stuff. This tells who the real masters of Bush and co. are, and they are not extremist clerics, at least not in off-election years. Nope. It's the money, as always.

Eberle and Gannon

An interesting Salon article tells us more about the day-passes that Gannon (aka Guckert) was able to procure for months on end:

So the mystery remains: How did Guckert, with absolutely no journalism background and working for a phony news organization, manage to adopt the day-pass system as his own while sidestepping a thorough background check that might have detected his sordid past? That's the central question the White House refuses to address. And like its initial explanation that Guckert received his press pass the same way other journalists do, the notion first put out by White House officials that they knew little or nothing about GOPUSA/Talon News, its correspondent Guckert or its founder Eberle has also melted away. Instead, we now know, former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer personally spoke with Eberle about GOPUSA, so concerned was Fleischer that it was not an independent organization. (Eberle convinced Fleischer that it was.) Additionally, Guckert attended the invitation-only White House press Christmas parties in 2003 and 2004, and last holiday season, in a personal posting on GOPUSA, Eberle thanked Karl Rove for his "assistance, guidance, and friendship."

The article notes that during the Clinton administration a reporter would get a day-pass only if she or he could justify the need for the reporting to happen from inside the White House rather than from elsewhere on that specific day. Clearly, the Bush administration doesn't use the same criteria. So what criteria do they use?

Whatever they might be, it turns out that Bobby Eberle, a conservative activist and the founder of Talon News, was also able to get a White House pass:

Yet, if there's one other person who did manage to receive the same type of kid-glove treatment from the White House press office, it was Guckert's boss at GOPUSA and later at Talon News, Bobby Eberle. A Texas-based Republican activist and a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 2000, Eberle founded Talon News after he became concerned that the name GOPUSA might appear to have a "built-in bias." With no journalism background, he too was able to secure a White House press pass, in early 2003, on the strength of representing GOPUSA, dedicated to "spreading the conservative message throughout America."

Is there anything wrong with any of this? I believe that there is a clear ethical problem in letting political activists infiltrate the press corps for the purpose of asking planted questions or steering the questioning into a safer direction. This makes the White House press conferences into total farces. It is also an attempt to manipulate public opinion in ways that are at least sneaky if not outright nasty.

Other problems with careless screening of journalists should be obvious to even the White House. For example, a terrorist could get in on a day-pass.

But my major concern with the whole Gannongate is how it reveals the tentacles of the administration in all sorts of improper places, just as the earlier revelations about paid journalists did. How much else is there that we don't know about yet? How many superficially independent journalists are getting their talking points and their bank accounts filled by the White House?

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

More on Women in Iraq

Is freedom coming to the Iraqi women? It is most doubtful:

As the Shiite clerics and Kurdish nationalists, who suddenly find themselves in power in Iraq, debate the form and function of the new government, one often ignored group of Iraqis finds itself ambivalent about the future. Although women participated in January's election in unprecedented numbers, a heartening sign that women would have a strong political voice in Iraq, many Iraqi women remain extremely anxious as religious party leaders, with strong ties to Iran, sit down to write a constitution.

Keep in mind that the majority of Iraqis are women. Yet they are in great danger of being totally ignored in the reconstruction effort and in the creation of a new constitution. The latter may be based on the shariah law which would mean lesser rights for women in the areas of family law (including the right to divorce and inheritance rights) as well as in women's rights to participate in the legal process as equal individuals.

But maybe the Iraqi women don't want such equal rights? Maybe this is all Western propaganda? Maybe. But a recent survey in Iraq suggests something different:

What's also dismaying to activists is that the election appears to conflict with what Iraqi women really want. Women for Women International, an American-Iraqi advocacy group, recently conducted a survey of Iraqi women and found that high percentages of them expect a role in the reconstruction of Iraq. "Many Iraqi leaders have claimed that women do not want to be involved in the reconstruction process," Women for Women founder Zainab Salbi said in a statement. "This survey clearly shows that women overwhelmingly believe they should have a seat at the table." The survey also reveals that Iraqi women expect equal rights -- 94 percent want legal protection as women, and 84 percent want to vote on the final constitution.

It's hard to interpret these two phenomena (large numbers of women voting for the religious list of candidates and so many of them also wanting what the religious candidates won't provide) in any other way except as an indication that most Iraqi women (and perhaps most Iraqis) don't know what the religious candidates stand for. This wouldn't be surprising. How could anyone know what democracy entails when it hasn't been tried in the recent past or even in the lifetimes of many of the voters?

I hope that the future is bright for all the Iraqis, both women and men, but this hope is not based on anything realistic. The most likely outcome in Iraq is a civil war followed by a theocracy which will not be good for women and girls. But at least we brought freedom there...

Today's Really Dum Comment

Not from my blog. I rarely get dum comments. This is from Washington Monthly and has to do with the recent round of lamenting the lack of female political bloggers:

More women are high verbal than men. They should do better at blogging.

As long as the blogs are devoid of content about chess, go, or mathematics.

Now you know.

Today's Action Alert

Today's Action comes from Seraphiel via Eschaton:

Find a postcard of Guernica and write on it (or print a copy of the picuture out from the web and write on it) "From the Citizens of Honduras." Then send it to Mr. Negroponte, c/o The White House, 1600 Pennylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C.

You might also want to send a copy to your Senators along with the message: Don't confirm Negroponte.

And if you need more motivation, consider this picture via Patrick's blog:

Alice in Wonderland

Or Bush in Europe. It amounts to pretty much the same story in many ways. We learn that Bush wants to mend the frayed relationship to the countries of Old Europe:

Bush's speech, during his five-day trip to Belgium, Germany and Slovakia, was aimed at both U.S. and European audiences. "In a new century, the alliance of America and Europe is the main pillar of our security," he said.

He uses the word "alliance" 12 times in the speech to underscore his aim to repair relations with Europe that were frayed over the war in Iraq. But not all his speech was conciliatory.

The president has been pushing Russian President Vladimir Putin -- some say not strongly enough -- to work toward, not away from, democratic reforms and transparency in government.

"We recognize that reform will not happen overnight," Bush said, just three days before he meets with Putin in Slovakia. "We must always remind Russia that our alliance stands for a free press, a vital opposition, the sharing of power and the rule of law. The United States should place democratic reform at the heart of their dialogue with Russia."

Fun, isn't it? "Our alliance stands for a free press, a vital opposition, the sharing of power and the rule of law". Has Bush looked at his own country recently? The United States is rapidly turning into a one-party state more like the old Soviet Union than anything else, the press is scared of the government and the wingnuts' screams about the liberal media so that an open government control is not necessary to get the news the government wants, and there is no sharing of power with anybody who is not an extremist member of the Republican party. The rule of law is being rapidly changed to mean something Orwell would have understood. Now granted, the U.S. is not as bad as Russia in human rights but we are getting there, my dear readers, we are getting there. So if I was Bush (a dreadful thought) I'd clean my own backyard first.

Ok, so Bush pissed off Putin. Putin deserves to be pissed off, and in itself this is not a bad thing, especially if Bush also said a few nice things about the Old Europeans. Did he? I'm not sure. Here is a different view of the same speech:

"Mr. President, the floor is all yours," Verhofstadt said. Bush looked more relaxed. He told jokes. Ben Franklin came to Europe and was greeted as "a friend to humankind. I was hoping for the same reaction. Secretary Rice said I had to be realistic."
He was wearing a blue tie, white shirt and dark suit. He stared out over the audience. He read from his script, turning the pages, tapping the podium when he was emphasizing a point.
"No power on earth will ever divide us," got some claps. But the biggest applause was for the Middle East. It was what the Europeans wanted to hear. Egypt and Saudi Arabia must develop democracy. But from then on it was a tour of standard American foreign policy. "Syria must end its occupation of Lebanon." "Iran must not build nuclear weapons," he said. The U.S. and Europe have a "moral duty to heal the sick, feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted."
Suddenly the words "freedom" and "liberty" began to pepper the speech. Freedom. Freedom. Freedom. "May God bless you all."
There was a short standing ovation for two or three seconds. Bush jumped from the stage and into the crowd. Beethoven's Sixth started again, as Bush moved along the front row, shaking hands. Onto the stage again, a wave, and "Thank you all," and he was gone.
"I missed a page about the European Union," said Timothy Garton Ash, the British academic, as he filed from the room. "About why it is important for the EU and America to work together. I am not convinced he will convince many Europeans talking like that."

The audience was carefully selected to be friendly towards Bush, of course. Outside the Europeans who felt differently held their vigil. I'm sure that they would have a lot more to say about Bush and his speech than I do. I'm used to seeing all sorts of emotional balloons appear from Bush's lips; Europeans tend to want to hear facts. It is indeed unlikely that talking about freedom and God and alliances will make much of a dent in the great European unhappiness about our current administration. Because this unhappiness is based on facts, only changing the facts would work. And Bush will not go there.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Bad Poetry for the Presidents' Day

This is an old and a bad one, written to commemorate this day:

The Presidents' Day

All these holidays for Them -
We eat and eat and shop.
Not thinking of the days when
we work and never stop
to buy ourselves the needed rest
to eat and eat and shop.

Where Have All the Women Gone?

It's that time again, the time to lament the dearth of female political bloggers in the upper ranks of the blogging hierarchy. I learned about the newest wave of this lamenting from Roxanne on the American Street, but it was all begun by Kevin Drum. These lamentations have happened three times since I started blogging fifteen months ago, so this is a recurring theme in the blogosphere.

(While I write this Freddy the spider is sitting on my shoulder, watching. When I was reading Kevin's discussion on the dearth of woman bloggers Freddy quickly slithered down into the relative safety between my breasts. Now this is the kind of writing that might get me a big audience, don't you think? I'd probably have to make Freddy hairier and somewhat bigger, first.)

The story usually goes like this: Some blogger, a male one, notices that there are very few women bloggers among the top one hundred most popular political blogs (or in some other similar measure). He then points out that the internet doesn't discriminate so the reason for this cannot be in discrimination. In what then? The answer usually consists of some kind of a combination of the following: a) women are not interested in politics, b) women don't like the rough nature of political writing and commenting and c) women are too busy cooking and taking care of children to spend time on the blogs. Sometimes a note is added to the effect that women might be above all such bickering and self-aggrandizing behavior or that women are genetically doomed not to reach for positions which indicate dominance in the human society. And so on.

The next stage of the lamentations is the chorus of responses. These take several different forms from purely misogynistic shit to arguments that there are plenty of famous women bloggers, only nobody knows about them. I'm kidding here, but truly the chorus does cover the whole octave of possibilities. Somewhere in the refrain the following points are emphasized: that the early adopters have a great advantage on the internet and most of the early adopters were men, that men tend to link to blogs by other men and that the measures we use for gauging popularity are in themselves biased towards older blogs and those that belong to various blogger groups. All of this is true in some ways, as are many of the other theories I have summarized here. But none of them are completely true and many of them are totally untested against actual data.

(Now Freddy is whispering sweet nothings into my ear. Tickling me in ways that none of my readers has been able to, so far...)

But the lament has so many discords that I get frustrated in trying to follow the music. For example, the idea that women don't savor bickering goes against the archetype of bitching as something that women do, and Ann Coulter goes totally against the idea that women don't like to say outrageous things for attention. The idea that women don't like politics may be true, but then there are many men who don't like politics, and it might all depend on how we define politics. I find it fascinating that one of the lament cycles argued that women like to talk about people and men about concepts but my experience is that most political blogs talk about people nonstop and about concepts very rarely, and those that do focus on the latter are often written by women (I have in mind Rivka of the Otters (who hasn't blogged recently) and Trish Wilson's blog here). It seems that the theories themselves are rubbery and can be turned whichever way the debater wishes. Take the genetic bunch: Here they should be pointing out how all the tests show that women are better writers than men, on average. But instead they tend to argue for other sorts of genetic reasons why women wouldn't be famous bloggers. A girl can't win.

(Except with Freddy. Freddy knows what a woman wants. His velvety forelegs are caressing my neck, slowly, so excrutiatingly slowly. I feel my breathing speed up, my heart melting my juices flowing, flowing.)

There is one theory about all this that has some merit, I believe, and that is that some men don't want to read what women write (unless it is on sex), so if a blogger can be identified as a woman she will lose those readers whose print looks too feminine. I have a book by Molly Peacock, entitled How to Read a Poem...and Start a Poetry Circle, and in its appendix Peacock includes a long list of poetry books that famous poets recommend for poetry clubs. I analyzed this list of recommendations to see whether male and female poets recommended books written by their own gender more often than those written by the other gender.

The results are interesting: For the group of twenty-seven male poets, the percentage of male recommendations is 87%, for the group of thirty female poets the percentage of male recommendations is 58%. (Most poets gave more than one recommended text. I was unable to tell the sex of a few poets from their names and omitted them from my calculations.) This is a sizable difference. The women appear to give female names almost as often as male ones whereas the men are much less likely to list female poets as recommended ones.

(Freddy! Where are you going, Freddy? Ahhh. MMMMM...)

What does this mean, if anything? I don't know but I suspect that there are at least some men who will not read female writing. Unless it is on hot sex.

(Oh Freddy, Freddy!!!! YES! YES!)

Sunday, February 20, 2005

My Absolutely Last Post on Lawrence Summers' Opinions

At least I pray to the Great Spirit that this is the last post, because I'm fed up with President Summers and his utterances. But even Maureen Dowd is mentioning him in her atypical rant against sexism (atypical because Maureen usually finds feminism the cause of everything that has gone wrong with women in this country.) Surely I can't keep my mouth shut if everybody else is having a go at our Lawrence.

So here it goes. Summers' statement on women in hard sciences and the reasons why there are not more of them have finally been made available as an actual transcript. I read it a few days ago and it says pretty much what the rumors indicated. Summers mentions three different theories for the scarcity of women in physics, mathematics and the like, and they are a) the long working hours expected in these professions and the expectation that women take care of the family, b) the possibility that more men are innately able to do sciences well and c) discrimination. Nothing wrong in mentioning these theories, I think. Where Summers goes wrong is in the way he ranks them without any good evidence:

There are three broad hypotheses about the sources of the very substantial disparities that this conference's papers document and have been documented before with respect to the presence of women in high-end scientific professions. One is what I would call the-I'll explain each of these in a few moments and comment on how important I think they are-the first is what I call the high-powered job hypothesis. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and the third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search. And in my own view, their importance probably ranks in exactly the order that I just described.

It is that last sentence and the words "in my own view" that I have difficulty with. True, we all are entitled to have our own views, but if we give a speech as the President of Harvard University then our views will take a significance much greater than those of a private person musing over these questions while having a beer or two. And it seems to me that Lawrence was doing the latter, throwing out various half-baked examples and anecdotes, carefully picking and choosing among existing research and so on, even mentioning that his twin daughters called their trucks mommy and daddy (which, according to many commenters, is really common among both boys and girls). All this in front of an audience that consisted of experts in the field.

This is insulting, isn't it? And just to make it quite clear that Dr. Summers doesn't think much of the discrimination explanation he reiterates:

So my sense is that the unfortunate truth-I would far prefer to believe something else, because it would be easier to address what is surely a serious social problem if something else were true-is that the combination of the high-powered job hypothesis and the differing variances probably explains a fair amount of this problem.

The differing variances refers to the idea that more men are capable of doing sciences on a high level. Why would Summers view this "truth" as unfortunate? After all, it would let him off the hook. If Harvard doesn't discriminate against women in science and if nobody else does, either, then there is no need for special efforts to avoid discrimination. Which makes Lawrence's job as a gatekeeper much easier.

The discrimination part of the speech is especially interesting, largely because of what is missing from it: any mention of the many studies which show that discrimination exists. Instead, Summers muses on two theoretical questions:

On the other hand, I think before regarding it as pervasive, and as the dominant explanation of the patterns we observe, there are two points that should make one hesitate. The first is the fallacy of composition. No doubt it is true that if any one institution makes a major effort to focus on reducing stereotyping, on achieving diversity, on hiring more people, no doubt it can succeed in hiring more. But each person it hires will come from a different institution, and so everyone observes that when an institution works very hard at this, to some extent they are able to produce better results. If I stand up at a football game and everybody else is sitting down, I can see much better, but if everybody stands up, the views may get a little better, but they don't get a lot better. And there's a real question as to how plausible it is to believe that there is anything like half as many people who are qualified to be scientists at top ten schools and who are now not at top ten schools, and that's the argument that one has to make in thinking about this as a national problem rather than an individual institutional problem. The second problem is the one that Gary Becker very powerfully pointed out in addressing racial discrimination many years ago. If it was really the case that everybody was discriminating, there would be very substantial opportunities for a limited number of people who were not prepared to discriminate to assemble remarkable departments of high quality people at relatively limited cost simply by the act of their not discriminating, because of what it would mean for the pool that was available. And there are certainly examples of institutions that have focused on increasing their diversity to their substantial benefit, but if there was really a pervasive pattern of discrimination that was leaving an extraordinary number of high-quality potential candidates behind, one suspects that in the highly competitive academic marketplace, there would be more examples of institutions that succeeded substantially by working to fill the gap. And I think one sees relatively little evidence of that.

I wrote in an earlier post the reasons why the latter of these arguments is a lame one. Becker's prediction applies only in a world where nobody but the employers discriminate and where everybody knows everything relevant, including the real productivities of all workers. When these assumptions are relaxed the conclusion stops applying. In fact, alternative models produce predictions which show that even nondiscriminating firms might be driven to discriminatory forms of behavior if the markets demand this. You pick a model you like, you get the results you like. As Lawrence well knows, and this is why he can't be absolved from using this particular example.

The first point is even worse: He argues that trying to attract women or minorities won't work because there aren't that many qualified members of these groups to begin with. Note that he provides no evidence for this view; only Summers-musings.

Then he returns to his views on this issue, just in case you have already forgotten them:

So my best guess, to provoke you, of what's behind all of this is that the largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people's legitimate family desires and employers' current desire for high power and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination. I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong, because I would like nothing better than for these problems to be addressable simply by everybody understanding what they are, and working very hard to address them.

He would love to be proved wrong which shows what a nice guy he is. But he doubts that he will be proved wrong as his views are pretty much set already: women don't enter the hard sciences in large numbers because there are few women who are capable of doing so and because few women want to work as hard as the job requires. This latter cause may be made worse by the societal expectations that women take care of the children and also by some discrimination, but on the whole the problem is insoluble. Or that's how I read Summers' opinions.

Now, remember that this speech was given by the president of Harvard University at a conference about how to get more women into sciences. The message seems pretty obvious: there is not much Harvard can do to encourage more women in these fields. Sure, they can provide childcare, perhaps, but that's about it. This from a man whose reign has seen a considerable drop in the number of women who get tenured at Harvard. So even if we ignore the details of Summers' speech we are left with an emotional message which can be quite chilling.

What about the question whether men are inherently more likely to have the ability to do science in the upper tail of the distribution? Note that these distribution tails that are being talked about here apply to various standardized tests. They are not the actual distributions of scientific ability as we can't really quantify such a beast. All we can do is create various tests that measure some small aspect of abilities and learning and test people on these, and these tests are created by human beings. I would be very careful about equating the findings of such tests with innate ability differences, given that they are administered by humans on other humans who already have had years of environmental effects working on them.

Note also that girls and women score as much higher in tests of essay writing, yet we rarely hear the argument that men are innately unable to become great writers in the same numbers as women. Note that many men who are scientists now did not score in the upper tails of these test distributions and finally note that boys might have larger variances in such tests if they do more guessing than girls. Of course men could simply have larger variances in the underlying abilities, whatever these might be for each specific test, but these other pieces of evidence also exist. Though they appear not to have much impact on Summers' opinions.

I suspect that Summers said what he said because of the recent fashion of viewing most everything as genetic. This has something to do with the Human Genome study and the publicity it has attracted, never mind that the study has so far been pretty silent about human psychology. Who knows what is genetic? Some gender differences surely are, but to argue for the rank ordering of causes the way Summers has done is arrogant; we don't have the science to justify such a rank-ordering. The science of genetics is taking baby steps, right now, yet many of us appear to be eager to saddle it with findings it has not yet produced and might never produce. At the same time, real women who score in the upper tails of various standardized test distributions may now not choose science because of comments like this one.