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.

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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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Blog, Commentary

On Coffee Warning Labels, Which No One Has Ever Talked About Before Ever

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So this image has been going around Tumblr for a while. I didn’t pay much attention to it other than to chuckle at the snark, until this angry response started popping up on my dashboard:

A few things you need to know about this hot coffee case:

  1. It wasn’t an issue of the coffee being because no fucking shit coffee is hot, but McDonald’s had over heated their water to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s 121C. Not just hot, but really FUCKING hot. Your fancy Starbucks lattes are brewed to 150 degrees.
  2. The 79 year old woman had this cup of 250F (121C) coffee between her legs when it spilled so 250F (121C) coffee spilled on her genitals
  3. She got third degree burns…on her genitals. THIRD DEGREE.
  4. She had to have skin grafts to repair the damage
  5. When she sued McDonald’s, it wasn’t for millions of dollars, it was for $20,000 to cover hospital costs and court fees. 20-fucking-thousand.
  6. It was the courts that awarded her the amount of money she got. Again, she only wanted hospital bills and court costs
  7. McDonald’s changed their heating policy, but not before making her sign a gag order keeping her from talking about this case
  8. So she had to live on hearing little shits like you call her stupid and money-grubbing, and other horrendous stuff because she dared ask the company in the wrong to fix what they fucked up.

I know I’ve reblogged this before tonight but so help me god, I will keep reblogging this with the proper information so everyone can maybe learn not to be an asshole. Like I said before, next person to mock this woman can have 250F (121C) water poured on their dick or lady dick and see how you like it.

So sit the fuck down, Canada.

Which, okay, to be fair, you don’t tell Canada to sit the fuck down without incurring my anger. But I had actual, legitimate problems with this post, and like in the Cho Chang issue, decided to get involved against my better judgment.

Tumblr, I love you, and I am anything but a McDonald’s apologist (I even agree with most of the substantive points here), but can I fucking point out that 121C / 250F is above the boiling point of water?! It is actually kind of impossible for water to go that high in our atmospheric pressure. If the coffee had actually been 250F, it would have been bubbling and frothing as it was being handed over about 18,000 feet below sea level.

The actual numbers are 82C / 180F in the coffee. Aeropress recommends 165-175F for brewing coffee, but the National Coffee Association says 195-205F. In other words: it is totally subjective. McD’s coffee was scaldingly hot, but it’s also not like McDonald’s was such a rebel in their coffee making that they used water with unheard-of temperatures in order to flout health and safety standards.

I did a presentation on Stella Liebeck in 7th grade, shortly after the incident happened. I followed a mailing list about her for months. This sort of stuff is close to my heart. It totally, totally sucks that Stella Liebeck got injured. She was well within her rights to try to recoup damages for medical treatment from McDonald’s. I’m not even saying that McDonald’s didn’t behave like a total asshole during the litigation. They should have just paid the fucking medical bills and issued an apology and gone on with things.

But a warning label on coffee telling you that it’s “hot” isn’t what’s going to protect the Stella Liebecks of the world from being scalded. That’s a legalistic CYA for McDonald’s, not any sort of protective measure for the consumer. All that will happen now is that when someone else gets scalded by McDonald’s coffee, they’ll be able to say “sorry, we warned you, you used our product in a way that we clearly told you not to”.

What would be a protective measure for the consumer is proper industry regulation – including, for example, how hot water is allowed to be in open containers before it’s being delivered to consumers. You shouldn’t have to sue private companies in order to have business regulations protect the interests of individuals. Yet that is exactly what happens.

At the same time, we also need to recognize that we can’t protect against everything in life, and that if something goes wrong, there won’t always be someone to point a finger at. Think about the massive cost of malpractice insurance and lawsuits. There are a lot of awful doctors who need to be held accountable for their actions, but there are also a lot of really great doctors who are absolutely terrified that they will be held responsible for the outcomes of procedures that were never perfect, and never expected be perfect, to begin with.

That is what we’re mocking, when we talk about a litigious society. Not Stella Liebeck personally, but the confluence of a deluded just-world fallacy combined with a pseudo-libertarian free-for-all in which government interference on behalf of its people is seen as overreach.

And that, unfortunately, is not so easily fixed with a warning label.

Be outraged at the things that are wrong with the world! But be outraged accurately.

(Originally posted on my Tumblr.)

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Blog, Commentary

Four wrongs and no rights

There are so many things wrong with the PyCon incident surrounding Adria Richards and the ensuing fall-out that the specific behaviour of the people involved doesn’t even begin to get into it.

The events, as I understand it, are thus: Adria Richards was in conversation with two men at a coding conference, during a presentation. The conversation moved on–or maybe it didn’t, it’s unclear–and the two men cracked some jokes that were sexual in nature. Richards took a photo of the men, and tweeted about her issue with the jokes. PyCon organizers saw the tweet, came into the presentation to speak to the men in private. The men apologized, and did not return to the presentation. Richards wrote a blog post about her experience. The internet explodes in hate, as it is wont to do, with rape threats, death threats, and public and private harassment directed at both Richards and PyCon developers.

Then, Playhaven, the employer of one of the men, decides to fire him. Richards’ website is targeted by a DDOS attack, then Richards’ employer, SendGrid, also falls victim. So SendGrid fires Richards.

In short: it’s a mess.

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Blog, Me

Canada.Com

So it turns out that when I decide not to blog regularly anymore, I really meant that I was going to bore other websites with my rambling instead of my own. I’ve been posting intermittently on the fabulous Canada.Com for the past few months, under the careful editorial hand of Mr. William Wolfe-Wylie (who, incidentally, has a ridiculously awesome name), and it just occurred to me that it would make sense to mention that on this blog as well.

Anyway, here are the things I’ve written for them in the past little while, if you’re interested:

I’ve really enjoyed writing for them, since I look at things that I might not have looked at otherwise, and having an editor for the first time since my brief stint with Millennials Mag* forever ago is always a good addition to my workflow. Go check it out!

*Come to think of it, all those articles are now unavailable. I should…post them somewhere. Like….a blog, or something. If only I had one of those.

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Massively Open Online Glass Ceilings

I got into an argument with someone on Twitter today about the future of education.

You thought I would be productive and focused and not randomly angry at random people just because I’m not blogging regularly anymore? Ha ha, PSYCHE.

The conversation was with someone who’s a major enough voice in the tech community to have a 6-digit follower-count on Twitter. The tweets that I saw were in response to the news about Harvard and MIT putting massive amounts of resources into making their curriculum available online, for free, and how surely this would be the solution to all of our education problems! After all, Udacity and EdX and Khan Academy exist! So if you still don’t have education, well, I mean, really that’s just your own fault.

This is endemic of a certain type of pseudo-libertarian techno-utopianism that I’ve been seeing cropping up more and more, especially in discussions of why it doesn’t matter that postal service and library funding are being slashed across the board because email and Wikipedia. And it’s really tiresome.

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The death of the liberal class

Pulitzer-winning journalist Chris Hedges:

The presidential election exposed the liberal class as a corpse. It fights for nothing. It stands for nothing. It is a useless appendage to the corporate state. It exists not to make possible incremental or piecemeal reform, as it originally did in a functional capitalist democracy; instead it has devolved into an instrument of personal vanity, burnishing the hollow morality of its adherents. Liberals, by voting for Barack Obama, betrayed the core values they use to define themselves—the rule of law, the safeguarding of civil liberties, the protection of unions, the preservation of social welfare programs, environmental accords, financial regulation, a defiance of unjust war and torture, and the abolition of drone wars. The liberal class clung desperately during the long nightmare of this political campaign to one or two issues, such as protecting a woman’s right to choose and gender equality, to justify its complicity in a monstrous evil. This moral fragmentation—using an isolated act of justice to define one’s self while ignoring the vast corporate assault on the nation and the ecosystem along with the pre-emptive violence of the imperial state—is moral and political capitulation. It fails to confront the evil we have become.

Hey Chris, big fan of your easy moral outrage. Sure am glad you told me what my core values are, because I totally don’t remember where I’d put that post-it note. I was wondering if you could also explain to me how not voting for Obama would have made the country believe in climate change and support the impoverished class and care about drone warfare? I mean, I assume you had a progression of logic here somewhere beyond RADICALISM LOL and YOU ARE BAD PEOPLE FOR CARING ABOUT THINGS I DON’T CARE ABOUT LIKE GENDER EQUALITY.

But, gosh, how petty of me to worry about personal autonomy and access to health care when there’s, like, so much pain in the world, dude. Queer people and visible minorities, I’m looking at you, too. The right to visit a dying spouse in the hospital or not be systematically profiled and disenfranchised by your government? Pfft. We should have thrown our support at a marginal idealist who won’t make it into office and sleep easy knowing that even though our rights are being curtailed on a daily basis, at least we had PRINCIPLES. How silly of us to care about our status as second-class citizens when we could have given up what little political capital we have in favour of a magical promise of a better future for our kids’ kids, one day, maybe, if they’re white and male and straight.

I know you’re really concerned about how Palestine is treated by the rest of the world, and I think it’s really admirable that you’re willing to leave its fate to a warmongering theocrat who thinks that Palestinians are to blame for their own poverty, all for the sake of TAKING A STAND. Hey, it’s gotta worse before it gets better, and whatever gets the American Liberal Sheeple to WAKE  UP, amirite?

But it’s okay, I get it, you’ve got a book to sell. I hope the profits arising from your crocodile tears about being the Last True Progressive In The Global North are going to those poor people living on $2 a day that you grew to cherish so much when you severed yourself from the American Myth, lol. I’m real sorry all of us hollow-moralled posers have let you down.

Good talk.[hr]

This rant was brought to you by the number 23rd hour at work and the letter ughhhhhhhhhh.

Comments disabled because see above.

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