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A video, "What most schools don't teach," circled the Internet this week, particularly among my developer friends. In it, a stream of famous figures in the software world make a compelling case for why you–everyone–should learn how to program. As a software developer and lover of code, I was excited to see such a great job of showing good reasons to support coding education.
Halfway through, however, someone says "jobs". Read the rest
Read the rest
When I was about 10, I developed an obsessive love for The X-Men. It started with the Saturday morning cartoon show, but quickly became about comic books, as well. To this day, long-overwritten plot points from the Marvel universe take up a significant portion of my memory space (as my husband can attest). In my marriage, I am the one who is called upon to flesh out the backstory and conflicts with source material after my husband and I have seen an action-hero movie.
But I didn't own a single comic book until I was 19.
In fact, I'm not sure my parents or friends even knew I liked comic books. All my reading, for nine years, was done in secret. I'd slip into the comic book aisle at the bookstore when nobody was around to see, grab an anthology off the shelf, and spend the next two hours nestled in a corner somewhere — with the comics safely hidden behind a magazine or large book. I did the same thing at the public library. Never even checked one out. If I couldn't finish a library comic anthology in one afternoon, I'd hide it in a seldom-used section and come back the next day. (My apologies to the librarians of the world for that.)
Partly, that shame and fear came was about being labeled a nerd, in general. But there was, for me, also a pretty heavy gender component. Tall, clumsy, nerdy, ignorant of fashion or makeup, and definitely not "attractive" in the way that sheltered pre-teen and teenage society defines it, I spent a good chunk of my adolescence paranoid about my identity as a female. Where and when I grew up, there weren't a lot of good role models for diversity of female experience. My parents always supported who I was, but society and my peers seemed to have a pretty strict definition of who girls were and what they liked ... and I didn't fit. Admitting that I was into comics felt like it would be just one more thing I did wrong. That's why I really, really love Women Reading Comics in Public Day, an unofficial holiday started by the bloggers at DC Women Kicking Ass.
Read the rest
Four years ago, Jana Mackey, one of my college roommates at The University of Kansas, was killed by her ex-boyfriend. When I lived with Jana, I knew her as a music major and a really fun person. But she had a serious side that came to the forefront over the next few years. Jana went to law school, got involved in domestic violence activism, and became a lobbyist at the Kansas State Legislature trying to bring attention to women's health and safety.
Her work made her death tragically ironic, but it also drives home a point. Domestic violence (whether physical or emotional) isn't just something that happens to the naive, or the weak. It's not something you can write off as "somebody else's problem."
There's a picture going around Facebook right now, of a young woman holding a sign that says, "Society teaches, 'Don't get raped' when it should teach 'Don't rape.'" I think the same thing is true here. There's too much focus on finding reasons to criticize or distance ourselves from women who have been abused, and not enough of a focus on preventing abuse from happening—by teaching kids how to have healthy relationships, by encouraging family and friends to step in when they see someone they know being abusive, and by making sure cops and courts take domestic violence seriously.
Jana's family is trying to rectify this through a nonprofit called Jana's Campaign. The Campaign put out this video last winter. On the anniversary of Jana's death, I wanted to share it with you. There's a message here. Take it to heart. Together, we can stop asking people, "Why did you let that happen to yourself?" and, instead, find ways to change the social values and incentives that allow abusers to go unchallenged, untreated, and unpunished.
The New York Times has a fascinating (and, FYI, kind of disturbing) story about young kids who exhibit psychological symptoms similar to what you see in adult psychopaths. It's a complex subject because, while everybody involved agrees these kids could use some kind of intervention, nobody knows exactly what that intervention should be and definitely don't want to stick the kids with a terrifying label that will follow them for their whole lives. More importantly, what we do know is that half of these kids will grow into normal adults—though we don't know exactly why.
It's an awkward situation where the science hasn't yet caught up to the personal need. In a perfect world, you might not want to mess around too much with this until we can learn more. But on the other hand, you're left with families that clearly need help now—like the family profiled in the story that must navigate how to deal with a nine-year-old who oscillates between violent tantrums and creepy, logical chill.
When I first met Michael, he seemed shy but remarkably well behaved. While his brother Allan ran through the house with a plastic bag held overhead like a parachute, Michael entered the room aloofly, then curled up on the living room sofa, hiding his face in the cushions. “Can you come say hello?” Anne asked him. He glanced at me, then sprang cheerfully to his feet. “Sure!” he said, running to hug her. Reprimanded for bouncing a ball in the kitchen, he rolled his eyes like any 9-year-old, then docilely went outside. A few minutes later, he was back in the house, capering antically in front of Jake, who was bobbing up and down on his sit-and-ride scooter. When the scooter tipped over, Michael gasped theatrically and ran to his brother’s side. “Jake, are you O.K.?” he asked, wide-eyed with concern. Earnestly ruffling his youngest brother’s hair, he flashed me a winning smile.
If the display of brotherly affection felt forced, it was difficult to see it as fundamentally disturbed. Gradually, though, Michael’s behavior began to morph. While queuing up a Pokémon video on the family’s computer upstairs, Michael turned to me and remarked crisply, “As you can see, I don’t really like Allan.” When I asked if that was really true, he said: “Yes. It’s true,” then added tonelessly, “I hate him.”
Glancing down a second later, he noticed my digital tape recorder on the table. “Did you record that?” he asked. I said that I had. He stared at me briefly before turning back to the video. When a sudden noise from the other room caused me to glance away, Michael seized the opportunity to grab the recorder and press the erase button. (Waschbusch later noted that such a calculated reprisal was unusual in a 9-year-old, who would normally go for the recorder immediately or simply whine and sulk.)
Seven years ago, I read an article that completely changed the way I thought about what racism is, and the privileges I experience as an upper-middle class white person. In honor of Martin Luther King Day, I'd like to share that article here.
I didn't know it at the time, but Peggy McIntosh's Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack is kind of a classic of anti-racist thought. The basic idea goes something like this: Racism does not begin and end with Jim Crow and the Klan. It's not just about obvious exclusion and oppression. Fighting racism isn't just about overturning blatantly discriminatory laws or cracking down on hate crimes. Racism, unfortunately, can be a lot more subtle than that.
Racism is also about whole social systems that confer privileges on some people, and deny those privileges to others. What's more, if you're one of the privileged people, the privileges you receive—simply for looking the way you do—are often completely invisible to you. So invisible, in fact, that you don't even think of those things as privileges, and you don't notice how they've made your life easier and better. So, when people who don't have access to those privileges don't live as easily and well as you, it's easy to blame that on some inherent moral or intellectual failing, rather than on the system that denied them privileges you've received since birth.
In the United States, there are many privileges that I get, simply for being white, that are denied to people with different skin tones. That's racism. And this system leads otherwise kind and decent people to act and think in racist ways, without even realizing that's what they're doing. Acknowledging this privilege—realizing that subtle racism exists and that you benefit from it—is the first step privileged people need to take if they want to be effective allies of the un-privileged. Here's what McIntosh says:
I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks. ... As far as I can see, my African American co-workers, friends and acquaintances with whom I come into daily or frequent contact in this particular time, place and line of work cannot count on most of these conditions:
• I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
• I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
• When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
• Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of my financial reliability.
• I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
• I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.
There is more where that came from, just read the whole piece. And yes, this idea does apply to other problems besides just racism. And yes, people who are privileged in some respects can be un-privileged in others, and vice versa. But acknowledging where you are privileged is important. Whether you're fighting racism, classicism, sexism, or any -ism.
One of the cool things about LED lighting is that it provides opportunities to bring some of the benefits of big, modern infrastructures to developing countries without having to actually build the big, modern (and expensive) infrastructure.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a story for ArchitecturalSSL magazine about people installing solar-powered LED streetlights in remote villages in southern Mexico. Tying these places into the larger electrical grid would have been extremely difficult. But solar LED streetlights allowed the people who lived in those places to get the night light they wanted.
Now there's similar work happening in refugee camps in Haiti, where many people displaced by the 2010 earthquake still live. The change is undoubtedly useful: LED streetlights don't have to be powered by expensive gasoline generators, they're better on the lungs than fires, and the light level is bright enough to allow people to work and live far more easily. But what about physical safety? Surprisingly, there turns out to be a decent amount of debate over whether or not the extra light actually reduces violence and makes people safer. It's an interesting case study in how "common sense" doesn't always match up with reality and how difficult it is to attribute cause and effect in complicated social environments. From at story Txchnologist:
In recent months, the lights have come on at two camps through the efforts of aid groups, the Haitian government and the particular expertise of the Solar Electric Light Fund, or SELF, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that uses renewable energy to provide light and power in developing countries.
The nexus between public lighting and safety is hotly debated in Western countries.
Some studies show a decline in crime after an area is illuminated while other research has found that crime actually increases after lights are installed, though it may be because crime is more visible. These studies are of little value, however, in places with collapsed infrastructure like Haiti, which plunged into darkness after the magnitude 7.0 earthquake flattened entire neighborhoods and killed untold thousands.
The security improvements were immediate. The lights function at full power from 6 p.m. to 12 a.m. and at 50 percent between 12 a.m. and 6 a.m. Reported acts of violence, including sexual assault, declined from about six per week when the installations began in June to one or zero per week when streetlights came online in August, according to J/P HRO data provided by SELF. While it’s possible to attribute this drop to other factors – the population of the camp had declined to 23,000 by September and community-based “protection teams” have increased patrols – residents reported feeling an increased sense of security. Increased usage of the latrines also improved Sanitary conditions “significantly,” according to J/P HRO.
Consider, if you will, the issue of sex and the single ant. Male ants are born into what is, essentially, a giant sorority house, vastly outnumbered by female workers. But that doesn't mean male ants are living out some Hugh Hefner harem fantasy. Most of those many, many females in the ant colony are completely uninterested in sex.
Only queen ants breed. During the course of their lives, they will produce all the baby ants born in the colony. In fact, in some (but, contrary to popular belief, not all) species, the drones' options are narrowed down to exactly one queen—effectively turning that sorority house into a sausage fest. A virgin queen goes on her mating flight, and the drones will get one shot to pass on their genetic material. Afterwards, the males die, and the queen uses their seed to give birth to daughters upon daughters ... most of which will be sterile workers.
On the surface, that system doesn't make a lot of sense. Evolution works because of natural selection, right? And that's based on sex—who manages to survive to adulthood and who manages to find a mate or mates. It's all about passing on your genes to the next generation.
So why would any species evolve a whole class of individuals who never have sex, and never have offspring?
That was basically the question posed by anonymous reader who asked, "If only the queen ant breeds, how does natural selection work for the other ants?" And it's a damn good question, something that confuses people far older than toddler age. In fact, that very conundrum stumped Charles Darwin himself and, today, it sits at the heart of a knock-down fight within the fields of evolutionary biology and social insect studies.