dum spiro

“A young woman was found at the corner of Space and Stone, in Leapgate Park

Both places share the same unusual meaning from the pre 7th century word “hliepgeat”, meaning a leapgate, a gate in a fence low enough to be jumped by horses and deer, but one that kept sheep and cattle from straying.

Horses and deer. Early Sunday morning. Kayak gloves and coldgear [tm].

A young couple: “Why is she jogging on a Saturday night?” hisses one. “Maybe she’s drunkorexic.” “Well, she’s not very good at it.” They laugh.

Paper Tigers

This article is prelininary (yes, I just did), but I got to it via a chain of Lin-related articles. It’s long. Will last at least a grande latte.

A particularly resonant snip:

But when he arrived at Williams, Chu slowly became aware of something strange: The white people in the New England wilderness walked around smiling at each other. “When you’re in a place like that, everyone is friendly.”

He made a point to start smiling more. “It was something that I had to actively practice,” he says. “Like, when you have a transaction at a business, you hand over the money—and then you smile.” He says that he’s made some progress but that there’s still plenty of work that remains. “I’m trying to undo eighteen years of a Chinese upbringing. Four years at Williams helps, but only so much.” He is conscious of how his father, an IT manager, is treated at work. “He’s the best programmer at his office,” he says, “but because he doesn’t speak English well, he is always passed over.”

This article gets a lot of things right. Lots lots lots. Read it and I’ll discuss it with you.

But then it then swerves to focus almost exclusively on the plight of Asian men!

Does my supposed womanly ability to soak up social cues (and this is where I throw in the Arabic slang that sounds something like “herrick george*,’ to mean, ‘yeah, right; pffffff’) neutralize the Asian? (It does seem like the Asian and woman things are said to neutralize each other a lot — the other case is the computer science diversity-space) Or is the writer’s aconsideration of the women of his race just another Asian attitude that he’s been inculcated with? (cf. article’s description of pick-up artistry)

(more…)

Two books

I read two books this weekend.

1. The Man Who Loved China, Simon Winchester

(This reaction written Friday 10:14, gliding slightly over Chicago)

I’m reading Simon Winchester’s The Man Who Loved China and while I take issue with the subtitle “the fantastic story of the eccentric scientist who unlocked the mysteries of the Middle Kingdom” (what is this, Foursquare? maybe ‘unlock’ is wholly appropriate, but it just seems overly active-passive at present). You must read it.

Reason? The eccentric scientist (biochemist, to start) in question, Joseph Needham, is such a badass. No other way to put it. He started out as an awkward undergrad who took long meditative walks, but really blossomed, became a nudist, married into an open marriage (before it was the cool liberal normal thing to do), learned to speak German at age 10 by reading a hefty tome, enjoyed translating things;

But the other aspect that impresses me is that I’m understanding more about China’s early 20th century history. Winchester’s portrayal, whatever this statement says about me now, seems neutral. The book explains how China’s academic infrastructure got royally screwed: deliberately targeted by the Japanese powers in 1937-38; poverty and wealth inequality was so bad under Chiang Kai-Shek that rare books were sold for pennies to whatever holder of foreign currency would pass by, curious; and we all know where this is going after Mao. Kind of.

It’s all very sad, but to think of this loving, flickering, familial academic flame in China (people grinding optical glass in caves to avoid being twisty-stabbed, you know), not this harsh fluorescent $$$-driven academic factory that exists now, is nice.

But what I also found very comforting about this book is that Joseph Needham (remember: Cambridge biochemist, with a biochemist wife) got interested in China due to a woman, and this turned out quite OK. I often worry about choosing academic pursuits due to people, and, well, I guess it’s not so bad.

You also get to read about his epic travels in southern and western china (in a truck), which seems totally uncomfortable, and entertaining when all you have to complain about is that 6 hours is a long time, and the airmadams (flight attendants? is that what they’re called now?) on Southwest are mean to you.

(they just always assumed that I was doing something wrong and scolding instead of speaking to me, and I have my usual problems with middle-aged women)

Oh, right: Winchester’s good. He uses fun words, except I forgot to write them down to look them up later. Winchester will make you keep swooning over Needham’s awesome; the author has a history of writing about epic academic works: he also wrote The Professor and the Madman, about the Oxford English Dictionary.

2. A Pale View of Hills, Kazuo Ishiguro

Um it’s hard to say what happened. Gauzy hills. Conflict of old and new. “Loyalty.” Drowning kittens?

Human ______ Interaction

I was reading Human Transit by Jarret Walker this evening and made a connection:

Designing a transit system is similar to designing software.

There’s nothing particularly profound about this connection: both transit and software are systems whose users are human beings with related but non-uniform goals — and an inability to change the system as they use it. The related but non-uniform goals are a challenge to the designer, and the inability to change the system (at the same pace as problems arise) is a source of frustration for the users.

For example, good software makes common tasks easy, but specialized tasks possible; similarly, ideal public transit would make travel between highly-frequented areas short (short wait time + short travel time), but less-frequented areas reachable. Systems are constrained by resources (developer time / tolerable complexity / municipal budget). The person / city asking for the software / transit system isn’t usually the system’s user, and might have confounding misconceptions.

Zune, with its beautiful visualizations, forgot me, who listens to most of her music in bed, eyes closed, about to fall asleep. I can’t stand having to squeeze the device for a few seconds and have to open my eyes to swipe down. For transit, those who sit on city councils are also usually drivers, who are used to reducing travel time by driving faster. As a result, they overvalue travel speed (our monorail travels 355 km/hr! A to B in 20 minutes!) and forget about frequency. If that A to B trip happens once every two hours, A to B might be 2 hours and 20 – epsilon minutes.

And of course there are differences. While bad software design leads to people choosing a different product (you don’t get money), poorly-designed transit systems make people go back to cars (you don’t get livable Earth).

mm, cities.

MLK Day Lecture: Dr. Claude Steele, “Whistling Vivaldi”

frustration is the experience that triggers the relevance of the stereotype

To watch: http://brown.edu/web/livestream/archive/2012-steele.html

{ black students, women in math, white athletes }

The title of the talk comes from an anecdote that Dr. Steele relates: a young black man realized that when walking down the street, people perceived him as a threat: they clutched their purses, crossed to the other side, looked away, etc. However, if he whistled Beatles songs or Vivaldi tunes (i.e. the one Vivaldi tune), people on the street treated him like a normal human being, would look him in the eye, say “How are you?”, etc.

On a semi-related note: It’s cute that “identity” in social science is something that makes people unique and different for everyone, whereas “identity” in algebra is something that does not change elements at all (e.g. adding 0, multiplying by 1), and the same for “everyone” (all group elements, per operation).