greensword: (Default)
I have spent a good portion of the morning talking to my coworkers about the neuroscience of orgasm. There's a fascinating area of research on women who are paralyzed and numb from the waist down who can still experience orgasm. This appears to be due to the vagus nerve. The word vagus comes from the same root as vagabond, and the nerve is named for the way it "wanders" throughout the body instead of going to the spinal cord and taking the traditional route up to the brain. So when a woman is paralyzed, there is still a way for signals of pleasure to reach her brain and therefore her consciousness*.

In the process of looking up the article that documents this, I also found out that there's research showing that when people orgasm, there's a drastic decrease in activity in their prefrontal cortex. This makes sense, since experiencing an orgasm makes you feel "out of control". Similar research shows that some men and women who have trouble reaching orgasm fail to decrease prefrontal activity. Of course, it's hard to know what's causing what, but it seems to bear out the common wisdom that thinking too much about trying to come only makes it more difficult to do so.

My coworkers and I agreed that this would be a fun line of research to pursue, but that we'd get embarrassed trying to explain our jobs at parties, so it's for the best that we study something more mundane, like morality.

* - The actual mechanics of orgasm, especially in men, can be induced without any conscious awareness, kind of like a crayfish's swimmeret system. (I knew something seemed familiar!)
greensword: (Default)
Last night was apparently the execution of John Muhammed, the adult half of the pair responsible for the DC sniper shootings.

Chrystal linked to the story, otherwise I wouldn't have known.

I was talking about this with someone else from the area recently, about how surreal it was to walk around outside then, how white vans freaked us out for months afterwards, even after we found out that they weren't using a white van at all. I remember because I was working at the local congresswoman's office when the first shootings happened right in Rockville, five minutes down the street. We kept getting calls from constituents and then one of the calls was my dad, telling me not to go outside and take the bus home, he would come and pick me up.

That was one hell of a year. 9/11, the anthrax attacks, the sniper shootings, and then Paul's death. A really crazy year.

I don't believe in the death penalty. That is mostly driven by feeling that it disproportionately punishes minorities, and that it frequently punishes the wrong people. But John Allen Muhammed is one of the people that is clearly guilty and probably "deserves to die". I still don't think he should have been executed. I don't think badly of those who think he should be executed. But the news that he's dead doesn't make me happy or satisfied or relieved. Just very sad.
greensword: (bitch please)
While I'm procrastinating...

I saw this piece on women playwrights and theater about a week ago. I don't know if those without a nytimes subscription can read it, but here's an excerpt:

When more than 160 playwrights and producers, most of them female, filed into a Midtown Manhattan theater Monday night, they expected to hear some concrete evidence that women who are authors have a tougher time getting their work staged than men. And they did. But they also heard that women who are artistic directors and literary managers are the ones to blame.

I grew increasingly more grumpy as I read the story, which details a study that asked male and female artistic directors to rate identical scripts with male and female names attached. The surprising finding (at least, the one reported by the NY Times and others in the media) was that female artistic directors were the ones giving lower ratings to women.

Here's the real deal:

The questions about the likely reception of a play intend to measure customer discrimination (by the audience, in this case) and co-worker discrimination (by the actors). They are not measures of what the respondent himself or herself thinks about the play... All it means is that they believe the audience and the workers in the theater are less accepting of female playwrights than of male playwrights. Male respondents don't believe this, but then they don't have the same life experiences as the female respondents...

Suppose you come and interview me about authors, say, and ask me to tell which ones I think are really good and what their future prospects might be. And I give you some female and some male names of writers I like and regard as equally good and then tell you that the female ones have not as great prospects as the male ones. Then you go out and write that THIS PROVES I'M THE REASON FOR THEIR NOT-SO-GREAT PROSPECTS! That's pretty much how this whole thing works: To notice discrimination is to be guilty of it.

Sexism is alive and well in theater... and in journalism.
greensword: (i see right through you)
There is, apparently, a heated debate surrounding the creation of the DSM-V. For those of you who didn't grow up with a copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in your home - it is a sort of general consensus of psychiatrists as to which different mental disorders exist and how they should be diagnosed.

It sounds relatively innocuous, until you start thinking about the fundamental questions that lie beneath. What is a mental disorder, and what is just a different way of thinking and behaving? Where is the line between legitimizing suffering and medicalizing otherness? What does mental "illness" even mean?

The DSM weighs heavily in these discussions. Clinicians, health insurance companies, and others use the DSM as a guidebook to deciding what they will recognize, treat, and pay for. The debate going on now has real impact.

The DSM has been controversial in the past. Until 1973, it listed homosexuality as a mental disorder, and it currently lists several provocative disorders, including Gender Identity Disorder, Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder, and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. The debate over whether or not these particular disorders should legitimately be included brings up all those fundamental questions.

The current criticisms being leveled at those compiling DSM-V (we currently use DSM-IV) fall along two major lines. First, apparently there is too much secrecy in the process. Whereas all previous revisions have been completely open, contributors to this revision had to sign a confidentiality agreement. Given that more than half of the contributors have financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry, that's a little troubling.

Secondly, the head of this revision has called for a "paradigm shift" in the way we think about mental disorders. The person who headed up the previous revision, Allen Frances, is one of the most vocal critics. He warns how in the past, reclassification of disorders such as ADD and autism created "epidemics" in the population and how with pharmaceutical pressure to create more and more disorders that can be medicated, the danger is even more great. The new version is apparently going to focus more attention on prodromal patients - i.e. people presenting with pre-clinical, more mild symptoms. I think it's great to try and catch small problems before they become big ones - we do this with physical health all the time - but like Frances I worry this is little more than a ploy to net more patients for the pharmaceuticals.

Anyway, what do you all think?
greensword: (he saves children)
The transition from Bush to Obama has been a strange one for me. There is a certain ease to opposing someone whose ideology is so different from yours. There is no need to be subtle, to try and tease apart where things are going wrong - you know why they are doing this thing that you hate: because they don't value what you value.

With Obama, things are different. He tells me that he values what I value - liberty, tolerance, security. And yet somehow I find myself outraged, again and again, by his actions. And I find myself trying to make excuses for why he is doing what he's doing. "He has to compromise," I tell myself. "He wants to stand up for our beliefs, but he can't."

It's what psychologists call the Fundamental Attribution Error. It is more complex than simply assuming the ill will of enemies and the good will of friends. It is a way for us to do so without feeling like bleeding hypocrites. We attribute bad outcomes to the situations our friends were put in. But we focus on the intentions of our enemies. It was their fault bad things happened. They wanted it that way. They could have changed things if they'd really tried.

And so Bush and Obama both pushed the bail-out, but Bush was stealing money for his cronies and Obama was making the best of an impossible situation. Neither Bush or Obama (so far) pushed for marriage equality, but Bush is a homophobe and Obama is just hoarding political capital. Bush and Obama have both kept troops in Iraq. Obama understands it is a strategic necessity. Bush likes shooting Iraqis just to watch them die.

Yes, there are concrete differences in ideology, policy, rhetoric between the two Presidents. But we should be wary that easy assumptions sometimes lead to disturbing biases. It is easy to let ourselves believe we are being even-handed, when in fact we are nothing of the sort.
greensword: (there's no crying in baseball!)
The two great goals of my childhood were to play for the New York Yankees, and the become President of the United States. I have yet to accomplish either of these things, but it occurred to me today to wonder - which will happen first? A woman in major league baseball, or a woman in the White House?

What do you think, and why?
greensword: (<3)
What is it about a romantic relationship that makes it different from other kinds of relationships such as friendships and family relationships? Is it something more than sexual intimacy? Why are romantic relationships so commonly exclusive? Is there something about romantic relationships that leans inherently toward exclusivity, or is it just a common cultural preference?
greensword: (hello)
I used to be more coherent with this sort of post, but damn. Just - damn. I am so fucking sick of Obama.

Edited to say:

Okay, let me try for some coherence.

We are a nation of human beings - people with the capacity for good things and bad things both - a nation of doctors, teachers, loving parents, artists and truth-seekers - a nation of thieves, demagogues, hypocrites, rapists and murderers.

All of politics - all of life - is a battle against those bad things. I don't believe there's a way to set up government to take over that battle for us. I don't believe there's a set of easy rules to live by - although some rules (thou shalt not kill, do unto others as...) are better than others.

Life is a struggle, a long upward climb against badness in ourselves and in others. I do my best in my own small little sphere because to do more would drain the joy out of my life and my own happiness is something that I at least have control over, something I can protect and nourish. I have a hard time believing that the sacrifices I could make would take us very many steps in the climb.

When the most powerful person on the face of the earth - when a man who I do believe has some compassion, some understanding of the depths of suffering in the world, some willingness to think outside the box - when he says, "No, that's too much to ask", "No, that's too big a change", "no, that's too high, too steep, too far" - when he chooses practicality over principle, money over fairness, rape and torture over justice and mercy, then I want to stop doing even the small things I do, I want to give up, lay down, enjoy my life as best I can and try to stop my ears against the cries of others.

What did he mean, yes we can?

Yes, we can give up?
greensword: (rainy nights)
I went to two fantastic shows this weekend. I saw Great Lake Swimmers at the Brattle theater, which was wonderful - their music is great on a CD but they're one of those bands that is something else altogether in concert. Tony Dekker's voice is just achingly beautiful. It takes the catchy melodies and unique lyrics to a whole other level.

My two favorite songs, for those of you who've never had a chance to listen before, are Changing Colours and Everything Is Moving So Fast. I really like how he takes these natural phenomena - leaves falling in the first song, and glaciers in the second - and turns them into love songs. You really have to listen.

The other great show was Debi's labor of love, Di Gantse Velt Iz A Teater - the selection of scenes from Yiddish plays (performed in Yiddish!) which she and her cast and crew have been slaving over for the past months. It was wonderful to watch - really, really impressive. There's something about old plays. They seem in some ways to be so inaccessible, so different and foreign, but if done well you can slide past that, into a place where you're seeing familiar people telling a familiar tale, and what matters if it's a hundred and fifty years old and in a different language?

Anyway, good weekend. :)
greensword: (Default)
today I had the choice between taking part in a three hundred person pillow fight, or doing my taxes

sometimes i hate being an adult :(
greensword: (you are the music while the music lasts)
I have decided to use my poll-creating powers to create a multi-stage vote off to choose the best musical songs of all time. I will then make a CD of them!

So! Comment here with your favorite songs and I will gather them all into a poll. To get you started, here are some of mine, in no particular order:

Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat (Guys and Dolls)
Luck Be a Lady (Guys and Dolls)
Wig In a Box (Hedwig and the Angry Inch)
The Origin of Love (Hedwig and the Angry Inch)
Cell Block Tango (Chicago)
We Both Reached For the Gun (Chicago)
Schadenfreude (Avenue Q)
The Internet Is For Porn (Avenue Q)
Defying Gravity (Wicked)
Take Me or Leave Me (Rent)
La Vie Boheme (Rent)
But, Mr. Adams (1776)
If I Loved You (Carousel)
Why Can't the English? (My Fair Lady)
On The Street Where You Live (My Fair Lady)
This Nearly Was Mine (South Pacific)
Younger Than Springtime (South Pacific)
Hair (Hair)
Let the Sun Shine In (Hair)
Sunrise, Sunset (Fiddler on the Roof)
To Life (Fiddler on the Roof)
Far From The Home I Love (Fidder on the Roof)
Surrey With a Fringe On Top (Oklahoma!)
The Sadder-But-Wiser Girl (Music Man)
Stars (Les Miserables)
One Day More (Les Miserables)
On My Own (Les Miserables)
Empty Chairs At Empty Tables (Les Miserables)

Come on! I know you all have opinions on this. ;)
greensword: (dress to impress)
Going into the office today I walked right into the middle of an uncritical wankfest about how chicks dig bad guys because they're all insecure and they don't know what's good for them. Set my teeth immediately on edge but I didn't want to butt into anyone's personal life so I left it well alone. Then someone brought up some evo psych study that supposedly proves that this behavior would have been adaptive back in the day, and I could not keep quiet.

This is what I said, in a slightly more polite way:

1) We have no reason to believe that this phenomenon even exists. The only time I ever hear about it is from whiny-ass Nice Guys who can't deal with the fact that no one wants to date them and have to pretend like it's a problem with the women. (They never seem to get that this sort of condescension and entitlement might in fact be what's driving women away!) Yes, some women like guys who treat them badly. Some men like women who treat them badly. While we're at it, some women like women who treat them badly, some men like men who treat them badly, and some genderqueer folks like all sorts of people who treat them badly. Sensing a pattern here? The only reason there's a cultural narrative around irresistible bad boys is bias in who gets to tell their stories. I know plenty of girls who've pined after guys in terrible relationships. The difference is they generally don't feel the need to make it about all-men-ever and even if they did, they don't have the platform from which to speak about it.

2) Real "bad guys" - i.e. abusers and manipulators - do exist. And women do keep going back to them. Why? Because they are scared and feeling powerless and our society does very little to offer them support or condemn their abusers. How *dare* people even come *close* to implying that this is somehow a problem with women? God, look at that logic. Men wouldn't be bad guys if women didn't secretly like it? Men wouldn't be abusers if women didn't want them to be? Sickening.

3) And don't you pretend to hide behind the mantle of science here. I do find value in evolutionary psychology but the field has a disturbing tendency towards just-so stories. And unfortunately the field is really conservative - they start from "this is how the world is" and work backwards to figure out why that would be. Problem is that like most people their privileged, narrow worldview doesn't actually represent how the world is. Really, sometimes it seems like the main purpose of evo psych is to justify sexism.

Just goes to show what sort of biased, lazy thinking goes on even in the most prestigious places among people nominally devoted to finding truth. Well done, Harvard.
greensword: (ada)
Women’s contributions often go unacknowledged, their innovations seldom mentioned, their faces rarely recognised. We want you to tell the world about these unsung heroines. Entrepreneurs, innovators, sysadmins, programmers, designers, games developers, hardware experts, tech journalists, tech consultants. The list of tech-related careers is endless.

All you need to do is sign the pledge, pick your tech heroine and then publish your blog post any time on Tuesday 24th March 2009 (Ada Lovelace Day). It doesn’t matter how new or old your blog is, what gender you are, what language you blog in, or what you normally blog about - everyone is invited.

This may be a slight stretch, but I'm going to pick as my 'tech' heroine Mahzarin Banaji. Although she's primarily a psychologist (and more of a social psychologist than a neuroscientist), she's well known for developing the Implicit Association Test, which you can take here. The IAT is a way of measuring people's unconscious biases by asking them to sort people into categories and measuring small but consistent differences in error rates and reaction times. For instance, it takes me a little bit longer to sort non-white faces into the category "American" then into the category "foreign". The IAT has been used to probe a number of different prejudices - including the tendency of people to not see women as scientists and technologists. At a time when public disavowal of prejudice is the norm, yet discrimination seems to keep on keeping on, I think her work is especially relevant.

Since she works and teaches in my department, I've had the pleasure of hearing her speak several times. She is unabashed in her support for women in science:

[Banaji's] implicit association experiments have shown that even female scientists can unconsciously associate men with terms like “astronomy” and “chemistry” and women with “music” and “history.”

Knowing this prejudice well, Banaji says she always goes out of her way to support aspiring female students in science.

“For younger women whose identity as women in science is not fully formed, I need to keep an eye out,” Banaji says. “If somebody like that comes along and asks, ‘I wanna give up mathematics for social studies,’ [I would suggest to her] ‘well, hold on, maybe you should go. But maybe you shouldn’t.’”
greensword: (Default)
I think I can safely say that this is my favorite commercial for a bank ever:

greensword: (happy einstein)
Spending the holiday reading about the history of mathematics, to be followed by a classic Dr. Who marathon. Embrace your inner geek!

When I was in first grade, my teacher was trying to get us to understand subtraction. "Whenever you take a larger number from a smaller number," she said, "the answer is zero. For instance, five minus seven is zero."

I raised my hand. "No it's not. It's negative two."

"Who taught you that? Your parents? Well, nevermind that, you'll confuse people. The answer is zero."

For what was neither the first or the last time, my teacher made me go sit in a corner and read while everybody else caught up.

What I wish she had said:

"You're right, the answer is negative two, but for a long time people didn't know about negative numbers? In fact, they didn't even know about zero! Mathematics started as a way for people to understand the world around them. If you borrow two candies from me, and then four candies from me, it's important for me to know that you owe me six candies, not one or five or three! Well, for a long time people didn't see a need for negative numbers. It was only about fourteen hundred years ago that an Indian man named Brahmagupta invented negative numbers, the same man who invented zero. If you'd like to know more about him, I'll show you where to look..."
greensword: (gimme some of that honey baby)
A few weeks ago [ profile] aliterati and our friend Dan and I had a conversation about the love stories we obsessed over growing up and how they effect our taste in partners, our dreams of what relationships should be, and the way we go about our romantic business. Since today is Valentine's Day, I thought I'd talk about the romantic daydreams of my childhood - those bits of feeling gleaned from books and t.v. shows, before we started figuring things out on our own.

Like many little girls, my favorite book when I was young was Little Women*. I read it cover to cover, over and over, and identified with Jo and hated Amy and loved Laurie. I didn't understand why Jo turned Laurie down in favor of the older, less pretty, less fun-loving Professor Behr. I had a crush on my own dark-haired, mischievous best friend and desperately wished he'd stop in the middle of one of our adventures in the woods and declare his undying love for me.

However, as much as I liked Laurie, he was not my romantic idol. After all, he didn't end up being good enough for Jo, and had to settle for annoying Amy. (My best friend didn't end up being good enough for me either - something I didn't understand even when I realized he would only be friends with me when no one else was around. I thought that meant I wasn't good enough for him.)

No, I met my great storybook love when my mother, seeing my fondness for Little Women, got me Anne of Green Gables. Now Anne Shirley, like Jo March, is a great character for girls to identify with: clever, independent, endlessly creative, passionate. But it wasn't Anne that I read the Green Gables books over and over for - it was Gilbert Blythe.

Gilbert Blythe was, at age ten, the embodiment of everything I wanted. Keenly intelligent, he is Anne's only intellectual rival (how I wished I had a handsome, flirtatious intellectual rival at that age!) and though he loves to tease her he stops when he hits on something she is sensitive about (the exact opposite of what all the boys I knew would do). It takes Anne years to realize she loves Gilbert back, but when she does, he is there waiting for her.

The third and final romantic book I loved was The Witch of Blackbird Pond. This is a little less famous than the other two, so I'll sketch out the plot - Kit, the orphaned child of Caribbean slaveholders, flees to Puritan New England to be with her mother's family, rather than marry the middle-aged friend of her father. On the journey, she meets Nat, the captain's son, who earns her displeasure by pointing out the flaws in her privileged, frivolous worldview. When she gets to her aunt's town, she tries to adapt herself to her new surroundings, but quickly becomes frustrated, and often escapes to be with Hannah, the witch of Blackbird Pond. It turns out that Nat is a friend of Hannah's as well. When the town turns against Hannah, Nat and Kit help her escape and, by the end of the story, fall in love and live happily ever after.

Why I love these books:
~ In all three books, the hero falls in love with the heroine first, usually for her independence, intelligence and bravery. The heroine takes her time to come to terms with her feelings.
~ However, they do not become doormats - they can clearly see the heroine's flaws and will point them out to her. When the heroine sees a real flaw in them (arrogance, rudeness, lack of compassion, lack of direction) they do their best to change themselves.
~ Except for Laurie (who is my least favorite of the three), they have a strong sense of self and a person they want to become regardless of what happens with the heroine. Gilbert wants to become a doctor, Nat wants to captain his own ship and try to win American independence and abolish the slave trade.
~ They all really like to tease each other.

These are actually rather common themes but they still ring true to me. I like intelligent, good-natured guys with enough self confidence to call me on whatever bullshit I put out there. I find stupidity, lack of direction, meanness, and an uncritical view of me to be huge turnoffs. And someone who likes to be teased and can make me laugh is just icing on the cake.

What about you? What were your favorite childhood romances, and can you see their influence in your life now?

* Actually it was Lord of the Rings, but there was no real romance in that. I didn't understand Eowyn until I was older and Arwen and Aragorn's star-crossed whatever still doesn't feel like romance to me. Little Women was my second favorite book.
greensword: (empathy)
Some people talk about the redistribution of wealth as though it's a bad thing. I'm not sure why, because many of these people are not filthy rich. Maybe some people still have a misguided sense of loyalty to an economic system that doesn't work. I've noticed that these people aren't terribly poor, either. Makes it easier to believe in abstract economic ideals when you know where your next meal is coming from.

I just find it amazing that, after years of massive wealth redistribution, with obscene wealth disparities not seen since the gilded age, and with an economic collapse directly caused by the recklessness of the financial elites, who grew wildly rich as the average american kept getting poorer and poorer, the solution seems to be to take massive amounts of taxpayer money and give it to the richest people in America, practically the only people not hurting right now.

No. No no no. Fuck that. We need to take massive amounts of rich people's money, and give it to the taxpayers.

We need to redistribute wealth.

When my grandfather was my age, the highest tax bracket was 95%. When my father was my age, the highest tax bracket was 70%. Under Reagan, that dropped from 70% to 30%. It's hovered in the 30s ever since.

(During the 1920s, taxes were even lower than they are now. It was FDR who raised taxes for the richest Americans during the great depression & WW2.)

We need to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans. By a lot.

I don't know if there's a prayer of this happening. Obama is disappointingly milquetoast when it comes to challenging the financial status quo, although I agree with many of his stimulus ideas.

Anyway, I hope this bill passes. It's a teeny tiny step, but it's in the right direction:

You tell 'em, Claire.
greensword: (this bunny is checking livejournal)
I've had a couple of really good discussions recently about what it means to be a Jew, and how as an American diaspora Jew one is supposed to relate to Israel.

Judaism is a quirky sort of religion, in that it doesn't really require belief, per se. Nor does it require a specific set of practices. I don't believe in God, or that any of the stories of the Torah really happened. I don't keep kosher or go to temple. I don't know Hebrew or Yiddish. And yet, I'm Jewish.

Even if I converted to another religion. I would still be Jewish. And even if I never told my children I was Jewish, they would still be Jewish.

It's such a tenuous connection in some ways. What does it mean to be Jewish, if it is such an unchangeable state of being? I didn't ask for it. I can't help it. Why should I feel any responsibility for or special compassion for my fellow Jews? But I do.

I don't think any one arbitrary group of people are better human beings than another. But the tenets that a group lives by, and their shared history, can shape their behavior. And that's why I've never really rebelled against this arbitrary thing I am, this random label that's applied to me. Because so far as I can see, being Jewish is a good thing.

Like I said, there's nothing you have to do to be a Jew. But there are things we have tended to do.

Jews don't proselytize. We don't try to convert you. I mean, not only do we not hang you upside down and slowly drown you in buckets of water until you believe what we believe - we don't even try to pressure you at cocktail parties.

Jews understand suffering. Of course we understand it - we have lived it. And I don't even mean the Holocaust. I mean 2,250 years of suffering. From that comes - at least, I hope - a natural sympathy for the discriminated against, the oppressed. On passover, we dip our fingers into our wine and take out ten drops, one for each of the ten plagues visited upon the Egyptians. We lessen our joy out of respect for those who have suffered - even when those who suffer are the very people who enslaved us. Because we understand that all suffering is wrong. Not just because it was done to us, to Jews. It is wrong, period.

I won't pretend to be an expert. Or to speak for other's conceptions of Judaism. But this is my understanding. These are the thoughts that have made me comfortable and happy in identifying as a Jew.

And so the actions of Israel recently have been... almost disconcerting. Because this is not what Jews do. We don't use our superior power to harm others at little risk to ourselves, because their lives are more expendable than ours.

Maybe this is because in two thousand years we have never had a land of our own to defend. Maybe this is because we have never had the power to harm others. Maybe all we were waiting for is the opportunity. But that's a depressing thought.
greensword: (Default)
there is a Bowl.

i realize that on the list of things wrong with the world, this is maybe entry #14,583.

but come on. come on.


Dec. 20th, 2008 09:42 pm
greensword: (everything is a game)
Also, this is the best thing I've found on the internet in a while:


For example:

            VISIBLE FILE
      O NOES
            INVISIBLE "ERROR!"

Today also included a snowball fight and rum-spiked hot chocolate. I approve.


greensword: (Default)

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