Blog, Commentary, Social Issues

Be Neville Longbottom

Donald Trump is President-elect of the United States of America.

This was a shock, but it was also not a surprise. It is always a mistake to underestimate the depth of bigotry.

I have spent most of the day staring off into nothing. I have not gone more than half an hour without tearing up or outright crying. I am already sick and tired of reading postmortems but I cannot stop clicking them like a hamster on speed, looking for something that could have saved you, could have saved us. I am angry at everybody. I am angry at everything. I want to tear shit up and burn things down. I want to disappear. Continue reading

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Blog, Commentary

Ashley Madison: It’s not really about infidelity.

(This post was first published on Medium.com)

About a week ago, I posted the following tweet:

In the week since a lot of new information has come to light. There has been a second, larger dump with source code and the CEO’s email. We know about “family values” activist Josh Duggar’s account on the site (for which he seems to be more apologetic than, you know, molesting his sisters). We know about women and members of the LGBTQ population living in repressive regimes whose lives have been put at serious risk because of the leak. We know there are already mercenary “security experts” that are using the public’s fear to harvest email addresses for scams. We are starting to see real-world fall-out, including at least two possible suicides that have been linked to this.

In other words, things have gotten a lot more complicated.

This issue is about much more than infidelity. It’s about our vicious delight in negativity, the inevitable failure of computer security and computer literacy, the collateral damage of schadenfreude, the normalization of vigilante justice, and a collective desire for black-and-white judgments.

This is going to get long. Bear with me. Continue reading

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Blog, Social Issues

Scattered thoughts about minimum wage

I got into a conversation about raising the minimum wage on a friend’s FB thread, and I am reposting my comments here cleaned up a bit so that text is not wasted. 

*

If you work 40 hours a week doing nothing but flipping burgers, or mopping floors, or making coffee, I see no conceivable reason why you should not make a living wage. Any argument that attempts to justify why someone working full time should be unable to support themselves is nothing but classist bullshit for “keeping the poor in their place”. Continue reading

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Blog, Commentary

Talking is not enough

Bell Let’s Talk always makes me super uncomfortable for reasons I can never quite articulate. Part of it is because I dislike a company advertising for itself on the backs of advocacy for mental health awareness. I get that this campaign is more effective at raising awareness across the country than Bell just silently throwing a whole gob of money at CAMH, but the ads don’t have to be so damn branded. (Note: I have similar issues with the Dove Campaign co-opting feminism. You didn’t start the conversation, you’re just benefiting from it. Yes, I am a cynical asshole.)

Part of it is also the nagging sense that we’re missing something, and moreover, that the thing we’re missing is being further obscured by a focus on talking.

Continue reading

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Blog, Whimsy

Types of Fictional Stories That Hit Me Right in the Feels: An Incomplete List

  1. Stories about good relationships between a parent and a child
  2. Stories about coming to terms with the imperfections of a parent
  3. Stories about searching for a place to call home, and finding it
  4. Stories about realizing that you are more rooted than you think
  5. Stories about the futile attempt to find happiness in the next adventure, always the next one
  6. Stories about love found in unlikely places between unlikely people
  7. Stories about love that grows over the course of an entire lifetime shared
  8. Stories about predestined love and the illusion of choice
  9. Stories about the ways in which we fail to live up to love
  10. Stories about being disillusioned about the people we love, and loving them anyway
  11. Stories about helping others despite lacking the means to do so
  12. Stories about storytelling that changes the life of the storyteller

Astute readers may notice that this means I basically cry at everything (fictional).  You would be correct.

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Blog, Commentary

TX Lege – These are the names to remember

The Texas State Senate just saw an absolutely amazing act of civic and democratic engagement. There is so much I want to say about it, but first I want to outline the events as they went down, for context.

The outline of the facts:

On May 27, Texas governor Rick Perry abused executive power and called a special session of the senate that had more lax rules about how bills could be passed. These special sessions are meant to deal with specific issues and crises, but have been exploited to ram through bills that the regular senate sessions didn’t pass. Special sessions only need a simple majority to pass bills, unlike the 2/3 of quorum required at regular sessions.

On June 11, more than two weeks in, Republicans added an omnibus bill SB5 to the special session that directly targeted reproductive justice: One would ban abortion at 20 weeks, regardless of rape, incest, life of the mother, ectopic pregnancy, preeclampsia, or divine intervention. The other imposed such stringent requirements on abortion providers (down to the fucking corridor sizes) that only 5 of the 47 abortion providers in Texas would qualify, and the others would have to shut down.

(This special session was called for redistricting issues, and had just had transportation funding added to its docket. Oh, special sessions are meant to deal with crises? And should focus on specific issues? Well fuck you, I’m Republican.)

Last Thursday on June 20, 700+ Texans showed up at the hearings in Austin to testify with their story and to stage a citizen’s filibuster against the vote. They were shut down at around 3 AM, despite there being hundreds of people left who had been there for 12 hours who did not get a chance to testify, because their testimonies were getting “repetitive”.

Last Sunday on June 23, hundreds of Texans showed up again at the debates hoping to prevent a vote on SB5, as Democrats proposed amendment after correction after amendment that delayed the vote for 15 hours. It’s notable that the woman who actually sponsored the bill stopped taking questions 2 hours in, because she was jeered for saying that rape and incest exceptions to the abortion ban were not necessary because rape kits can “clean a woman out”.

On Monday morning at 4 AM, the Republicans used their majority to force an end to the debate and the legislature gave preliminary approval to the bill. I should mention that about 63% of Texans think there are enough abortion laws on the books in the state, and 75% of Texans think abortion is a decision for the woman and her doctor, not for politicians. This meant, however, that there was a 24-hour-delay until the Senate could consider it.

Continue reading

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Blog, Commentary

Scattered thoughts on thinking about success

I was emailed this excerpt from an HBR article recently:

Before trying to pursue a significant goal, especially a professional one, it’s important to assess whether you have the ability to achieve it. Consider two things:

  1. Do you have the required core capacities: knowledge, skills, and personal characteristics?
  2. Are your capacities as good as or better than those of other people with the same goal?

If you answer no to either question, you should consider revising your goal. If you answer yes to both, make sure you’re not succumbing to one of these five common fallacies:

  • The hard-work fallacy: Believing that determined effort will compensate for your shortcomings
  • The smarts fallacy: Thinking that general intelligence translates into specific skills
  • The magnification fallacy: Assuming that your particular talent is somehow more special than your peers’
  • The passion fallacy: Believing you’re good at things just because you really enjoy them or because they are immensely important to you
  • The “wishing will make it so” fallacy: Convincing yourself that success (for you, anyway) will be easy

So this is an interesting concept, but it feels a little bit like the cold-reading of self-help business writing, because it could apply to everything, but it could also apply to nothing. The inverse of those conditions are also truisms, right? Don’t measure yourself against other people in order to gauge your success; everyone is different. If you wait until you are absolutely sure of all conditions for success before starting, you will never start anything, so start before you’re ready. (That second one is a big thing in programming – start a project before you know what you’re doing, and learn as you go.)

I mean, think about what the inverse of one of those “common fallacies” would actually say: “Determined effort is no guarantee for success”. “Being intelligent does not necessarily mean you have skills”. “Your unique skill set is actually not unique”. “You’re might suck at things even if you really love them and try really hard.” They might be more “realistic”–whatever that means–but those types of thoughts are all also oftentimes symptoms that someone is, well, clinically depressed.

And while it’s true that clinical depression has been linked with a more harsh worldview that does indeed take into account these fallacies, it’s certainly no way to live. These rules also neglects the “risk assessment” portion of decision making – sure, nothing is a guarantee, but what are the chances I’ll succeed, even though I’m not unique or skillful and only have hard work and passion? Well, that depends on your definition of success, but I would say they’re not too terrible, especially if you are privileged enough that you have free time to read HBR articles (or know what HBR is). Hard work (which assumes that you are able-bodied in a way that’s suited for the work you need to do) and passion (which often translates into perseverance) are harder to come by than you’d think.

Plus, maybe someone else has the same goal and has more absolute “capacity”, but that doesn’t mean it’s a zero sum game. Maybe both of you can succeed in similar measures, or that someone else might get a better version of that goal (Ubisoft instead of Zynga if you’re both game devs) without knocking you off your rail. Since both of you have a mix of different types of capacity, even if theirs is “objectively” better than yours, there will be specific circumstances where one trait will be more important than another, and vice versa (e.g. sometimes personal characteristics like eagerness to learn will outweigh absolute technical skills). It’s not like capacity is a raw score from 0-100 – it’s a mix of a variety of interacting factors that are difficult to predict.

Those “fallacies” also ignore the halo effect – confident people seem like they know what they’re doing, so people believe in them more. There’s a reason “fake it ’till you make it” is a popular mantra. In many instances, being deluded about your chances for success actually is not a bad trait to have, as long as it doesn’t preclude you from learning things you don’t know.

TL;DR: Success is large; it contains multitudes.

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Blog, Commentary

Another gender-neutral pronoun enters the ring

(An edited version of this article first appeared on Canada.Com.)

The Swedish National Encyclopedia has decided to introduce a gender-neutral pronoun into its catalog, officially recognizing a word that has been in casual use since at least the 1960s. Predictably, detractors see in this everything from a feminist agenda bent on destroying language, to psychological damage for our children.

Keep in mind that this is merely an introduction of the pronoun into the National Encyclopedia, and not a divine edict. While I appreciate the official show of support for the complexity of gender from a respected academic establishment, it’s not like the Swedish government is going around arresting people who do use gender-specific pronouns. They’re simply acknowledging the existence of this word, and its proliferation in the general culture. The Oxford English Dictionary acknowledges the existence of the neologisms “Britcom” and “LOL”, too, and that hasn’t led to a downfall of society.

The gender-neutral pronoun issue rears its head with predictable regularity among linguists who study English, and we face the similar conundrum. There simply isn’t an elegant and universally accepted way to talk about a single person whose gender is unknown or irrelevant to the discussion.

“One,” after all, makes you sound stuffy and old-fashioned. “It” is largely reserved for animals. Numerous neologisms have been invented by academics, none of which have found much purchase in popular society. I travel in pretty progressive circles, and I still do a double-take when I see someone use ze, zie, zhe, or any of their variants.

Part of the reason these haven’t caught on is just because we don’t do very well with top-down decrees when it comes to language; you need organic support in the form of natural, day-to-day use. It’s why no man-made language like Esperanto has really caught on across the world, despite how much easier (supposedly) it is to learn. Despite what you might think of 21st century atrocities like “impactful” or “to action” or any sort of text speak, the reason they’re around more and more is because they arose organically from a specific linguistic need, and filled a vacuum. Another example of a language vacuum being filled is the word “cis” to indicate someone who identifies as the same gender as the sex they were assigned at birth. It’s a borrowed term from chemistry that stands in opposition to “trans”, and neatly identifies a component of someone’s gender identity without assigning default or superior value to either identity.

The other big reason these neologisms haven’t caught on could just be because a more organic alternative already exists – “they”. Contrary to what outdated grammarians would have you believe, “they” has been used as a gender neutral third person singular pronoun since about the 15th century. “Don’t use ‘they’ to talk about a single person” is about as relevant as “Don’t end a sentence with a proposition” – both of them hammered into the heads of impressionable students from a young age, neither of them particularly correct. (As Churchill famously said, this is the kind of nonsense up with which I will not put.) Writing style guides for newspapers and universities and other are just now starting to catch up to this, finally allowing “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun to be used in an official capacity.

Still, when you use “they”, you’re still conjugating verbs in the plural. It’s “they drink a glass of water”, not “they drinks a glass of water”. It’s still not a perfect solution.

The language we use can empower or marginalize in equal measures. The use of the universal “he” in legal documents have been used as excuses to deny women their legal status, keep them form being able to participate in parliament, or practice certain religious rituals. And even without those stakes, it’s dehumanizing for women to be defacto excluded from the default state of humanity. You can’t have gendered words in a language and use one of those genders to encompass the other without conveying a subtle class difference between the two.

If you doubt this, consider how jarring it would be if you wrote all legal documents with a universal “she” instead. It’s already the standard in some niche subcultures, like designer board game instruction writers. But it’s by no means mainstream or universally accepted.

(Fun fact: Chinese didn’t really have a gendered pronoun until about the 1920, when a female version of the default pronoun was adopted in order to make Chinese seem more like those gender-specific western languages we looked up to so much. The previously gender-neutral pronoun then became standard for ‘male’, even though the components of the logogram use the neutral ‘human’ character.)

I applaud the efforts of the Swedish National Encyclopedia, even as I remain skeptical of its possible effects, given how these things have gone in the past. In Baltimore, high school students have been using “yo” as a gender-neutral pronoun in slang since about 2004, seemingly organically, but even that hasn’t seen much penetration in the rest of the country or the English-speaking world. I have a feeling the move is significant more for its indication of institutional support and its ability to raise awareness about gender issues than its actual impact on language use going forward. Nevertheless, it’s a heartening move, and a sign that maybe our endless efforts to equalize gender relations is getting somewhere after all.

(Now, let’s talk about a second-person plural alternative to “you”. My vote is for “y’all”.)

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