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 Fields 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.