I departed TEDWomen feeling very inspired, happy, and exhausted. The event was amazing, though I do think they could have done a better job of bringing more smart women who can talk about traditionally non-women issues — math, sports, science not related to breasts or pregnancy — to the stage. (Hearing Danielle Fisher talk about how she felt when she became the youngest woman to climb the Seven Summits, for example, would have been more fulfilling to me than listening to a parade of political figureheads talk about what it was like to be both a grandmother and a leader.) I hope TEDWomen will catalyze bringing more women to main TED, and that we'll be able to dig deeper beyond the rhetoric female empowerment and gender disparity to stories about women who do really cool shit and don't necessarily have to frame it as a woman thing.
Cynthia Breazeal, founder of the Personal Robots Lab at MIT, talked about how personalized robots can be used to improve communication, health, and media. She's been fascinated with personal sidekick robots since watching Star Wars as a child and has expanded her research based on the idea that robots = social technology. "People respond to robots a lot like how they respond to people," she says — by how likable, engaging, and trustworthy they are.
There were three really amazing talks in the second session of TEDWomen this evening. (Highlights from session 1 are here.) Here's a quick summary:
Courtney E. Martin, the 30-year old co-editor of Feministing.com, gave an engaging and deeply moving talk at Session 2 of TEDWomen today about how her generation is re-imagining feminism. She explained it as three paradoxes:
1. Reclaiming the past and promptly forgetting it.
Martin, the daughter of liberals, grew up denying that she was a feminist until she saw Manifesta co-author Jennifer Baumgardner in fishnet stockings. Part of the challenge of feminism, she says, is to acknowledge that aesthetics, beauty, and fun do matter. "My feminism is very indebted to my mom's, but it's very different. [She] says patriarchy, I say intersectionality… she says protest march, I say online organizing… Feminist blogging is the 21st century version of consciousness raising." Feminism is no longer about man-hating and Birkenstocks.
2. Sobering up about our smallness and maintaining faith in our greatness.
Shortly after graduating from Barnard College in 2002, Martin became disillusioned by the lack of impact she felt she was having even though she worked at a non-profit and took part in volunteer protests. When she sat down to tell her family about it, her mom said to her: I won't stand for your desperation. Even if what you're doing feels small, you still have to have faith in the grandeur of it all.
3. Aiming to succeed wildly and being fulfilled by failing really well.
Martin quoted Parker Palmer, who said:
We are whiplashed between an arrogant overestimation of ourselves and a servile underestimation of ourselves.
After she picked herself up from her disillusion, Martin realized that life is not about glory or security; instead, you have to embrace the paradoxes, act in the face of overwhelm, and learn to love really well.
I'm at TEDWomen, which takes today and tomorrow at the International Trade Center in Washington, DC. The organizers have turned this venue into a wonderful little sanctuary with massage stations, a cartoon exhibit, and lots and lots of coffee — much needed after the red eye that brought me to the biting cold East Coast just this morning. Here are some highlights from the first session:
Hans Rosling gave a funny talk that posited economic development against the proliferation of the washing machine. When Rosling was seven, he watched his mother load a washing machine for the first time in his life. They invited his grandmother over to watch — she has been heating stoves on firewood to handwash clothes for seven children with her entire life — and the grandmother sat mesmerized in front of the contraption through the entire wash cycle. "To [her], the washing machine was a miracle."
It doesn't take much research to know that the bottom two billion people live on less than $2 a day — below the poverty line — and that one billion people spend more than $80 a day — above what he calls the "air" line. Rosling did some serious digging and number crunching to divvy up the economic scale by washing machine ownership. It turns out that an additional one billion people own washing machine, i.e. live above the "wash" line. These people spend about $40 a day. This means that, in a world with seven billion people, two billion have washing machines and the remaining five billion still wash their clothes by hand. This is a task that mainly falls on women, who spend hours every week performing this heavy-duty task by hand, often lugging water to their homes or their laundry to a water source far away. "They all want a washing machine. There's nothing different about their wish than my grandma's two generations ago in Sweden."
Rosling wrapped his talk with two important points: one, that as the population grows, the top consumers of money and energy need to spend less energy and transfer some of the current energy usage to green energy usage. Two, having a washing machine allowed him and his mother the time to enjoy things like reading books.
I'm a volunteer at Maitri, the only remaining AIDS hospice in San Francisco. Once a week, I hang out with its 15 residents, run errands for them, and — sometimes — sit at their bedsides as they go through the process of dying. I do it because I like to face my fears, and death is the one thing that I fear the most.
My relationship with Vinny began at a time when I was subconsciously distancing myself from Maitri. After the tragic deaths of a few long-term residents I had gotten very close to (two died of natural causes; one was brutally murdered while out with her abusive boyfriend; another bled too much from his dialysis tube), I was feeling depleted and scared to create new connections. I still came in for my weekly sessions, but I spent more time chatting with other volunteers and less time connecting with the residents themselves. It felt safer that way.
During a routine volunteer support group meeting, a woman named April mentioned that she wanted to make a book for Vinny. He had been showing her his poetry, and she thought it would be a good idea to get it published.
But April is a self-proclaimed luddite and barely knows how to turn on a computer. So I offered to help.
On a foggy Wednesday afternoon several months ago, April introduced me to Vinny, a 54-year old man from Oakland. He's a dapper fellow in a wheelchair who wears black leather, lace, dangling cross necklaces, and thick metal bracelets. His room is colorful and full of life — a bright blue bedspread with tigers on it adorns his single bed, and an oversized dolphin tapestry hangs above the headboard. A thick black cross nests between two rainbow-colored butterfly-shaped cushions on his pillows. His closet is overflowing with one-of-a-kind outfits — a sleek leather Looney Tunes jacket, a blue silk robe, a purple Spiderman suit — that he picks up at the thrift store downstairs.
I sat in Vinny's room for hours as he showed us his writing and graciously answered our questions. In addition to publishing his poetry, we wanted to chronicle his life for posterity. Maybe posterity isn't the right word, because all five of his children are dead. (He won't tell me why.) Vinny's explanation is more blunt: he just doesn't want anyone else to make the same mistakes he did. I transcribed his every word on my MacBook as he spilled stories about his horrible childhood, his careers as a drug dealer and an airport hydraulics specialist, and the diagnosis that changed his life.
I remember a long time ago when I was a small child; in these days children were poor and abused by their elders. It was an every day thing. Every morning when my eyes opened they both had tears in them because I knew that day would bring pain, lots of pain. Black and blue marks across my face, and my hands crushed in car doors on purpose. I was forced to take pills that at the time had affects on me. I thought being raped was just part of my life. There were boys and little girls who knew this whole picture was wrong. But who would you tell at that time? Who would listen to what a kid had to say?
No one at all.
"Have you ever been hit on the head with a high heel shoe until you bled?" Vinny asked me. I stupidly shook my head no. "I was hit because she was so drunk and she would come in and beat me. She would call me names and take off her shoe and put holes in me. I was a tiny little kid and didn't know what to do. I needed an escape from my pain, to get out of that morbid, morbid world I was in." Other things "she" did included tying a rope around his neck and making him eat sauerkraut — his least favorite food in the world — on his hands and knees. He ran away from home when he was 6. He lost his virginity to his twenty-something year old baby sitter when he was 9. Her name is tattooed on his right arm.
Vinny spent his whole life trying to right the wrongs done to him as a child. He never beat his children. He got married and bought a house in San Bruno and held a proper job working on the hangars at San Francisco International Airport for over a decade. There was just one
problem: the demons from his childhood. They followed him wherever he went. Sometimes they showed up by his bedside in the shape of a mythical alp. Other times, as vampires in his dreams.
It only takes one person to take you down that path of no return. I had a great job working at the San Francisco International Airport for over 17 years. But one day after work, my friend and I bought some speed. We only had one outfit, so we shared. He went first. I've known him and his wife for 15 years, so I knew he was clean — or so I thought.
One day, he got sick, so we took him to the hospital. He came back HIV positive. His wife and I cried and took the test too because we had shared his needle. Needless to say, mine came back positive as well.
The suicidal thoughts alone took me to places nightmares are made of.
He died three months later. I quit my job at the airport, paid off my house and gave it to my wife, whom I divorced because I was afraid she or someone in my world would contract my sickness.
I gave up my life and moved to San Francisco to die with the others who had AIDS. I've been around for a long time. I thought I was all this and that, Mr. Big Shit, but what I really was was stuck on stupid, just like everyone else who thought the easy way out was easy.
Vinny packed a few things in his truck, said good bye, and drove south. For the next two decades he lived peripatetically, camping with his dog and making the occasional trip up to San Francisco to sell drugs and buy anti-retrovirals. In other words, he became one of those people that society has written off. A failure. During his last few years on the streets, he became a licensed minister and offered services to friends who were dying. He came to Maitri as an end-of- life patient in April.
We all struggle to fit in, some of us more than others. Most of us figure it out somewhere down the road and find societies we feel like we belong to, or can at least pretend to belong to. And then there are the Vinnys of the world — they're born unlucky and stay that way. No matter how hard they try, they are unable to integrate. Many of the residents here suffered from extreme poverty, misfortune, and addictions in life. This beautiful zen-inspired space where they have come to die is more peaceful than other settings they've lived in — drug-infested SROs, crowded hospitals, the city streets. Even then, facing death is no easy feat.
Vinny's cancer is eating holes into his eye socket and his left cheek.
The entire right side of his face has melted away; you can see that there's nothing underneath his tattooed skin. It hurts. He can barely sleep.
My friend who is a nurse once told me about her experiences of observing how families react to the death of a loved one at her hospital. Some try to fight it by telling the dying person not to go; some try to negotiate with it with medication, life support, oxygen; others put it on trial, finding someone to blame for what's happening to them. One of my favorite books in the world, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, offers advice on how to not fear death and let loved ones die peacefully according to Tibetan Buddhist principles. I'm not a Tibetan Buddhist, but I'm going to take their advice on this one. Here's what author Sogyal Rinpoche suggests you say to someone who is dying:
I am here with you and I love you. You are dying, and that is completely natural; it happens to everyone. I wish you could stay here with me, but I don't want you to suffer anymore. The time we have had together has been enough, and I shall always cherish it. Please now don't hold onto life any longer. Let go. I give you my full and heartfelt permission to die. You are not alone, now or ever. You have all my love.
Vinny is getting weaker every day. When I saw him yesterday, he was so much worse off than he was a week ago. He can barely sit up but he refuses to lie down in his bed, maybe because he knows that's where he is expected to die. All I can do is sit by him and reassure him that he is not alone and that it's okay to be afraid.
Over the weekend, the staff of Longshot Magazine (previously known as 48 Hour Magazine) hid $750 somewhere in San Francisco. Now they've revealed four clues on their web site — including this treasure map by Wendy MacNaughton — to help you find it. If you locate it, the cash is yours. So what are you waiting for?
I want to entertain an offhand theory that I've had ever since I became obsessed with indoor rock climbing two and a half years ago: It's great for geeks, and we should all be doing it.
The concept is simple: you tie into a rope that hangs from the top of a wall and climb that wall according to color-coded fake rocks that are bolted into it. Within this simplicity lie some great life lessons that you can experience all while having an amazingly fun time: conquer your fears, solve puzzles, stay fit.
1. Conquer your fears: A lot of people are scared of heights. Most of us are scared of falling. None of us want to die. When you climb, you have to push these fears out of your head. It takes focus to be 40 feet high and pulling up on two fingers or balancing on your toes while trying to get higher up the wall; you have to use that focus to breathe through the climb and push past your fears.
2. Solve puzzles: There's a huge problem solving factor to climbing; it's like a giant physical algorithm or brain teaser that you solve by knowing how to use your body as your mathematical tool. "Climbing is like solving a giant dynamic first-person 3D puzzle," says Tantek Çelik, author of HTML5 Now: A Step-by-Step Video Tutorial for Getting Started Today and a competitive climber himself. "Your body is a flexible puzzle piece and the wall is a puzzle. You have to figure out how to fit your body into the wall, how to twist, turn, stretch, grab, hang, push to climb up the wall hold by hold. It takes spatial reasoning, body self-awareness, balance, and fine motor-control."
When I was a kid, I played a lot of sports. I also played a lot of Tetris. The two were always separate. Climbing feels like playing Tetris with my body. In other words, it's like being inside a video game. Kind of.
Some of the most badass rock climbers in the world are total geeks at heart. Matt Wilder, the guy in the photos, is a professional sponsored rock climber and the author of the most up-to-date guide book on bouldering in Yosemite. He's also a speed cubing geek who is currently doing a double degree in computer science and applied math. When he was in his early 20s, Wilder spent two summers hanging out at San Francisco's Pier 39, next to the silver Statue of Liberty guy, speed-cubing for tips. On a good day, he made $25 an hour; he saved up the cash and spent the rest of the year climbing in Yosemite or Tahoe. "Cubing is a good mix of dexterity, problem solving, and rapid thinking. In that way, it's a lot like climbing."
Science has yet to prove the relationship between climbing and Tetris or the Rubik's Cube, but Berkeley neuroscientist Jack Gallant says there's a chance they could be linked. "Both rock climbing and cube solving require some form of spatial reasoning, so it isn't out of the question that they share some common neural substrates in the brain. The extent to which these tasks use overlapping versus distinct processing mechanisms simply isn't known at this point."
3. Stay fit: Climbing is a lot less strenuous than running on a treadmill or doing bicep curls. You never lift more than your own weight, and since you're using all your muscles at once, your body becomes strong and evenly toned. Depending on the route, it can be a total balancing act, a cardio-heavy endurance challenge, or a series of pull ups. Yoga is a great complement to climbing; I try to do one or the other at least every other day to keep my core strong, my breathing steady, and my strength and balance intact.
The trend is clear: geeks are climbing. Every other person I meet at my gym is a software engineer. At SXSW and at other tech events across the country, conference-goers gather together for Geeks Love Climbing, a regular indoor rock climbing outing that Çelik helped found a couple of years ago. "A climbing problem pushes all other thoughts and feelings out of your head," he says. "This is very similar to a tough programming problem." Çelik would know — he is, after all, one of the guys who led the creation of IE5 for Mac.
You don't need to be a natural athlete to be a good climber. You do need to be persistent, obsessive, and determined to solve problems. If you like programming, Tetris, or Rubik's Cube, there's a good chance you'll become as much of a climbing junkie as I am.
Here's what you'll need to start indoor rock climbing
3. A belay lesson. You'll need to know how to tie a couple of basic knots and learn some safety measures. A seasoned friend could teach you in half an hour, or you could take a class at your local gym.
Artist Michele Banks uses watercolor to depict natural, scientific, and medical phenomena. This one above shows cell divisions (note that it's not meant to be completely accurate); another one I like is a bright blue canvas with a single line showing someone's heart rate. Her work is available for sale in the Makers Market/Boing Boing Bazaar!
Check out this great Japanese TV commercial for Delicare M's, a jock itch cream. Tokyo gets really hot in the summer, and men still have to wear suits to work, so the idea of a refreshingly itch-less crotch is likely to appeal to many salarymen.
On August 18th, an expedition team will be heading out to the Titanic site to create a 3D map of the wreckage 2.5 miles beneath the sea. 1,522 people died in the Titanic shipwreck in 1912; oceanographer Robert Ballard discovered the remains in 1985, and since then a bunch of different expeditions have headed out there in an attempt to salvage artifacts or take photos. But this one appears to be by far the most technologically intensive and expensive mission.
The "dream team" of archaeologists, oceanographers and other scientists want to get the best assessment yet on the two main sections of the ship, which have been subjected to fierce deep-ocean currents, salt water and intense pressure.
…The expedition will use imaging technology and sonar devices that never have been used before on the Titanic wreck and to probe nearly a century of sediment in the debris field to seek a full inventory of the ship's artifacts.
A garage sale enthusiast from Fresno, California scored big time when he bought two small boxes of glass plate negatives for $45 a decade ago. He has just confirmed that these belonged to the famous Yosemite photographer Ansel Adams, and are worth $200 million.
The latest creation from Joe Sabia is this video of people smoking cigarettes in Mad Men. They write:
This video will have one of two results. This repetitious, perfunctory and seemingly pointless act of inhaling smoke may turn you off to smoking cigarettes. Or, the fact that this repetitious, perfunctory, and seemingly pointless act is carried out by such debonair, dashing human beings will make you run to your corner store and chimney down a carton before dinner. Either way, advertising works.
Cigarettes or not, I just love the aesthetics of this show. And the music in the background.
A 5-year old girl was accidentally kidnapped this morning when someone carjacked her dad's Cadillac while he was paying for gas at a Richmond, CA gas station. The girl — and later the car — were found abandoned on two separate street corners nearby.
A study published in the July issue of the Journal of Neurophysiology found that romantic break-ups activate parts of the brain that are associated with addiction cravings:
"This brain imaging study of individuals who were still 'in love' with their rejecter supplies further evidence that the passion of 'romantic love' is a goal-oriented motivation state rather than a specific emotion" the researchers concluded, noting that brain imaging showed some similarities between romantic rejection and cocaine craving. "The findings are consistent with the hypothesis that romantic love is a specific form of addiction."
The study also helps to explain "why feelings and behaviors related to romantic rejection are difficult to control" and why extreme behaviors associated with romantic rejection such as stalking, homicide, suicide, and clinical depression occur in cultures all over the world, the researchers wrote.
I think most of us have experienced this feeling at one point in our lives, but it's interesting to know it can be backed up by science.
I always thought my friend Alex would look pretty as a girl.
He has huge doe eyes, fair skin, and a dimpled smile that can charm the pants off of anyone, male or female. The first time I saw him dress in drag was at InTouch, a now-defunct gay Asian bar in the Tenderloin. He was wearing a blond wig and a black dress; he did a little Sex and the City number with three other guys on stage. That evening, he went by the name Scary Bradshaw.
Now, four years later, Alex has found a more permanent identity as Estee Longah, a fabulous vintage queen and founder of a semi-professional all-Asian drag troupe called the Rice Rockettes. Once every month or two, they put on lavish, highly sexualized performances at party venues like The Endup and AsiaSF. And they're empowering a population of gay men to experiment with a mode of self-expression that is often taboo and sometimes even non-existent in their own cultures.
On the Thursday before San Francisco's gay pride weekend, Alex invites me over to his office to watch his transformation into Estee. Getting dolled up usually takes three hours and the show is slated to start at seven thirty, but when I get there a bit past five he is still in his wife-beater and stone-washed jeans, looking like a dude, screwing the spotlight in place at center stage.
"We're on drag Asian time," he jokes as he finally plops down at his desk and rolls out a dozen or so makeup brushes.
For women, makeup is often a tool to boost confidence in our outward appearance — a little bit of mascara and liner makes me feel slightly prettier than when I go barefaced to the gym. For drag queens, it's a full on transformation, the adoption of a whole other identity. "As Alex, I don't feel like I'm talented enough or creative enough. But as Estee, I can be whoever I want to be."
Alex's workspace is a little corner cubicle — nothing fancy, just a desktop computer, a phone, and an empty cup of iced coffee from the neighborhood deli. Alex is a Filipino from the island of Guam. Both cultures, he tells me, have the perception that gay men are just effeminate men who want to be women. "This all plays into the stereotype that gay people are second class citizens, mentally disturbed individuals, and sinners. Since the ideal of the masculine man is the norm, a man would have to be crazy to want to look like a woman or do womanly things." Even in the US, "it's hard to recruit drag queens in the community. There's a lot of stigma around it. A lot of Asian men already feel hyper emasculated."
Alex decided to become a drag queen because he wanted a creative outlet for self expression, but also because he wanted to send the message to other gay Asian and Pacific Islander men that it's okay to be feminine. "In Asia, drag performances tend to focus more on gender illusion — pretty girls posing and being perfectly beautiful on stage. It can be very magical and appealing, especially for straight men who might not understand the difference. In the US, we tend to take the art of drag and create our own way of expressing ourselves, whether it's through spoken word, song, activism, or just being a hot mess on stage."
I think I know what he means by being a hot mess on stage. Last Christmas, when I went to see the Rice Rockettes perform at Octavia Lounge on Market Street, a drag queen named Doncha Vishyuwuzme wore a ball gown made with pink Chinese restaurant plastic bags and waved her arms to a romantic number while making slutty faces at the audience. I'm pretty sure I saw glimpses of her boxer briefs, fake boobs, and a dildo during her performance.
Alex lays three paper towels neatly in front of his computer, pours brush cleaner into a small spray bottle, and dutifully spritzes each brush. Once he's done, he smoothes shimmery body lotion on his arms and chest. He slathers orange paste — "It's a camouflage crème, or simply known as beard cover" — onto his stubble. "It's temporary art," he says. "Like an installation almost, you enjoy it for what it is and then you wipe it off."
He puts a layer of red lipstick on his lips. He pats some powder on top to set it; then adds another layer. "The key is to do three layers," he says. To finish off the look, he draws a thick exaggerated line of dark brown liner into the shape of a deliberate pout. He puckers his lips at the mirror and tilts his head with satisfaction.
Alex's knowledge of makeup is really quite impressive. "I usually do three colors of blush," he says. "Nars has the best brushes. For lipstick, Mac is good too, but I really like Makeup Forever. The pencil and the color, it's just really good. I'm really happy with it." Many drag queens by day are makeup artists, working the Mac booth at Macy's or prettying up brides at weddings. When Alex isn't at his day job as the men's health coordinator for the API Wellness Center, he sometimes does makeup for weddings and special events.
A handsome guy named Maveric shows up about half an hour into the "birthing" of Estee Longah. Maveric's alter-ego is a hard core club-going whore named Lychee Minelli, a self-proclaimed high class prostitute. Lychee is Estee's drag daughter — about six months ago, when Estee first met Maveric, she took her under her wing, gave her a drag name, and taught her how to be a fabulous queen.
Maveric has high cheekbones and the smoothest skin I've ever seen on a dude. "I was working at a newspaper at a podunk town in California, and the queer in me was dying. It was terrible. Low pay, crazy ass hours." So Lychee moved to San Francisco, got a marketing job, and joined the Rice Rockettes in January. He just happened to be at one of their performances when Alex invited him on stage. Ever since then, he's been a regular member of the troupe, gracing the stage with his raunchy, exaggerated, and incredibly sexy hip gyrations that most ordinary women wish they could pull off.
Alex is doing Lychee's makeup tonight, but normally, he encourages all his Rockettes to watch drag makeup tutorials on YouTube and master the trade themselves. "It's fun, but it's also a lot of work. It's not something you want to do every day."
It's almost 8pm; an event staffer drops by Alex's cubicle to get a status check. "The crowd is getting antsy," he says. Alex draws two moles on his face, one under his right eye, one under his left lip. He douses his face with fixing spray: "It's like hairspray for the face. The one at Kryolan is really good. It doesn't smear."
To witness the emergence of Estee is like watching a magic show. Alex has drawn a series of bold brown lines across his cheeks and forehead; between that and the orange chin, for the first hour of the transformation process, he looks more like a tiger than a woman. But when he starts to blend the colors into his face, Estee appears out of thin air. The only sound we hear is his fingers stroking the contours of his face and the soundtrack to Mommy Dearest — his number for the night — playing quietly out of his computer speakers. As he strokes the different colors briskly with his fingers, Alex's face fades out of view and a fair-skinned, exaggeratedly feminine visage emerges. It truly feels like I'm watching the birth of an adult woman out of thin air. Alex pops on an auburn wig and squeezes into a black fake-hip-hugging knee-lengthed dress. She has arrived. Estee Longah, a gorgeous, slightly androgynous Joan Fontaine-esque vintage pin-up girl straight out of a 1940s movie poster.
In the background, a drag queen named Vi is singing a Beyonce song. Rice Rockette members Chi-Chi Kago, Lychee Minelli, Marijoy Tabatsoy, and Saigon Dione are also in the wings getting ready for their numbers. Estee smoothes out her dress and shuffles out of Alex's cubicle towards the evening's limelight.
Tita Aida, a legendary transgender activist whom Estee considers her "drag mother", steps up to the stage and gives a brief introduction. "She is a mover and shaker on Polk Street," she announces, referring to San Francisco's historical transvestite prostitution district. "She came out with her own line of cosmetics for the new Tenderloin woman. Please welcome… Estee Longah!!"