Thursday, November 21, 2013

Cuff Links and Nail Polish: How Gender Roles Hurt Everyone

Ever since I first realized that people consider me to be a woman--that as a further fact beyond having visibly female sex characteristics, they think I belong in the female gender role--I've been struggling with how to respond to that information.

It's clear that I shouldn't try to hate mall shopping just because my culture has put much more pressure on me to enjoy that than it has on my brothers. For whatever reason, I do enjoy it, and if I stopped I'd have one fewer thing in life from which to derive pleasure. Which would be sad. But it's also clear that I shouldn't feel guilty for being assertive as a result of similar pressures, if I can avoid it.

So I'm trying to become more conscious of when my motivations spring from implicit beliefs along the lines of, "This will preserve my social points, because women are supposed to make themselves sexually appealing to straight men, and this makes me sexier." (Note: Men can gain social points for looking extra sexy, though men's social points aren't usually conceptualized that way. But women lose social points when they don't make a special effort to look sexy. Because pleasing men is what we're really here for, right?)

Sometimes it's pretty clear-cut. For instance, it's usually easy for me to tell when I'm not doing something merely because I would be perceived as less feminine/more masculine, and I'd lose social points for it. It feels like longing. I notice myself going, "I love men's dress shoes so much; I wish I could get some really dashing men's dress shoes and coordinate my outfit around them." For a while in college, when I felt that way my response was, "Fuck this shit, that's exactly what I'm going to do!" But now I'm in a new environment where I don't feel quite so high status. When I went shoe shopping the other day, I found myself gazing longingly at the men's shoes while spending my allotted shoe money, with resignation, on women's shoes. (Much sadder to me than the shoes: Men's cologne. Oh my god I love it so much.)

There are also clear-cut cases where I wholeheartedly adore doing the traditionally feminine thing, and would definitely still want to do it if I were male. I love having painted nails--though having someone else paint them is better--and if a male version of me wouldn't go in for a mani-pedi, it would be for the same reason that female me is reluctant to be visibly masculine. Transgressing gender roles comes with a price, regardless of your sex.

The areas that give me trouble are the ones where I sort of want to do something that falls in the female gender role, but also sort of don't want to do it. 

For example, I sort of want to wear a tight dress that shows off my breasts and hips, and I sort of want to wear heels that show off my calves. For a while I thought this was because I want to appear well groomed, since that makes me feel like I command attention and respect (thus increasing my confidence), and this is simply the way to do it when you're in a female body. (I do, by the way, like my female body, and I usually don't like the idea of becoming physically male.) But a female body in a suit and tie neither appears nor feels any less well groomed. Indeed, I'd feel a lot better groomed that way, since in men's clothes I can dress to the nines without worrying that it's "too slutty". I would feel elegant, in charge, and handsome.

Tight dresses and heels aren't about authority and respect. They're about sex. The part of me that wants to wear them loves being sexy, loves the idea of turning on strangers when I walk down the street. The part of me that doesn't want to wear them wants attention and respect with no dependence on my utility as a sperm receptacle.

If I were young, fit, and male in a post-gender society, I'd often go out dancing in skimpy head-turning dresses that showcase my physique. But I'd go to conferences with a tie clip and cuff-links, because that's how I roll. And color coordinated nail polish, of course. If I were female? Same.

How I expressed myself, how I interacted with others, and how I made my way in the world would have everything to do with who I am and nothing to do with which behaviors society associates with which body parts. How other people interacted with me would be similarly gender-free.

I chose to talk about clothing here because it's a concrete, simple, vivid illustration. But it's also relatively trivial. Gender roles do not stop at attire, and it's the more subtle things that really hurt us.

It's the way the pizza delivery person always addresses my male companion instead of me when we answer the door together, because priors say women are submissive and men are dominant. It's the way I have to publish twice as many articles in journals twice as prestigious to be academically competitive with a man, because priors say women are simple-minded and men are intelligent. It's the way I'm interrupted far more often than my male discussion partners, and the way I'm perceived as bitchy and pushy rather than confident and authoritative when I do insist on speaking up, because priors say women are quiet and men do the talking. Men are agenty, and women are at their service.

If you want to better understand exactly how gender roles work, I highly recommend the talk below by Virginia Valian. Alternately, check out her book Why So Slow?: The Advancement of Women. In the latter, you'll find citations of and notes on all the source material she mentions in the talk.

P.S. The longer version of this is the most important lecture I've ever listened to.

Edit: Shortly after I wrote this, a New York Times article featured a clothier called Bindle and Keep, which has been making men's suits for female bodies for over a year now. I am SO excited about this, and I really hope the meme spreads rapidly through the clothing industry. Hopefully, I'll eventually get to schedule a fitting for my dream suit in the Bay Area.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Ars Memoriae

I sense that more is possible in the art of memory.

There was a time when everyone remembered. There was a time before smart phones, before computers, before widespread literacy, and before writing, when there was nothing to do with a thought besides remember it. If you failed in that task, there would be no external reminder to fall back on--no index to browse, text message to dig up, no crumpled-up post-it at the bottom of your purse--and the thought would be lost forever. That time comprises the vast majority of  human history.

It's easy to imagine that members of pre-literate societies must have lived almost entirely in the moment, with no libraries or photographs to hold onto their past thoughts for them. But that is only because the art of memory has been so thoroughly replaced by external mnemonic technologies. Few of us have ever been prompted to explore the potential of internal memory.

Before the printing press, people were taught from childhood the powerful, ancient techniques of memory. How powerful? Powerful enough to create and pass down the 15,963-line Iliad for at least a hundred years before it was finally committed to paper. People in pre-literate societies were constantly immersed in their history, oral tradition, and the products of their previous mental labors. For all the incomprehensible breadth of humanity's new external memories, it is we who are bound to the present.

If you haven't heard of linking, memory palaces, or the Major System, the most basic introduction to mnemonics will demonstrate that you needn't be limited by the tiny capacity of your working memory once you've learned to embed information directly into long-term memory. I remember the first time I learned a twenty item list in just a few minutes. The encoding took effortful concentration (though it gets much easier with practice; I can now complete the same task in about 30 seconds), but the surprise and excitement I experienced with each item effortlessly recalled shattered deep resignations about my own cognitive limits. That was my first taste of the possibility in the art of memory.

I've since learned of the subculture of mnemonists, people who compete in the memory circuit. They travel all over the world to find out who can learn the longest string of random digits, lines of poetry, and shuffled decks of cards. I've learned that the only difference between myself and mental athletes is that I've never deliberately trained my skills. I could perform such feats if I tried, as could you.

I've not tried, though I have made my life much more efficient (I was once terribly forgetful and absent minded) by storing information in my very own brain for reliable recall any time I want to. If I don't want to lose my keys, I simply remember where they are. If I want to remember which bus stop I'm looking for, I needn't leaf through my notebook while standing in the cramped isle or pull up the right screen on my phone. I just remember. I never forget passwords, names, or my credit card number--not once I've decided to remember, anyway. These conveniences alone are well worth the half hour of study needed to become proficient in elementary mnemonics.

But there's just no way that this is all there is. About 2,600 years have passed since we began writing things down. And rather than putting to revolutionary use the internal memory software responsible for the Iliad by harnessing the ability to remember more important and different kinds of information, we're still mostly using it to remember our shopping lists while our hands are full? That can't be right.

Or can it? After all, there's no reason for most of us to know that a mole of carbon atoms is 6.022*10^23 atoms of carbon: In the unlikely event that you need to do stoichiometry, Wolfram Alpha will answer all of your questions. This much is certainly true. But in the context of a discussion of mnemonics, something about it feels off. "We don't need internal memory because our external memory is so much better" misframes the relationship between memory and learning.

If you take a 400 level college course, it probably has prerequisites. You must first have taken a related 300 or 200 level course. Why?

Because often, in order to learn things you first must know things. Human memory is a massive network of associations, and recognizing relationships among concepts requires each concept be located somewhere in that network. Without well-traveled pathways, the memories will get lost. They will find neither conscious awareness nor each other.

You cannot innovate, you cannot invent, and you cannot seamlessly integrate information stored only externally. Creativity is not a magical spell for creating something out of nothing. It's the ability to make new associations among old ideas and new data. To be creative, the raw materials must reside in internal memory. Wikipedia is simply not available to the subtle workings of fluid intelligence.

We should not allow technologies like writing to cause our memories to languish and atrophy. Rather, they should enrich our memories with much higher leverage information than was available to mnemonists past.

Our society has lost the art of memory because we can get away with being lazy. But how might the world be if each of us had a sprawling memory palace as lavishly furnished as that of an erudite Greek of 660 BCE? Imagine if it contained the most important information we encounter now.

This is the vision of a liberal arts education, after all; but while we spend longer than ever before--18 years at least--memorizing only to forget, we are no longer taught how to learn. If we all learned to think memorably, to keep the most important parts of past experience close at hand, how much more creative might we become? And what might we gain the ability to learn?

Further Resources

  • This half-hour lecture/audiobook by Derren Brown is the best introduction to the basic mnemonic techniques I've found so far.
  • For a look at how it was done in the good old days, check out Cicero's Rhetorica ad Herennium (Latin background optional). Though there's been some innovation, this is still basically an accurate description of how the professionals do it.
  • There is much to learn of the remembering mind in Homerian verse. As Milman Parry established in the 1920's (at the age of 18), what was captured by Homer in heroic hexameter was not merely a story, but the inner workings of literary thought 'ere dawn of the written word.
  • Joshuah Foer's Moonwalking with Einstein is a riveting tour of mnemonic subculture, as well as an introduction to the history and theory of the art of memory. The Kindle version's only ten bucks, but if you can't spare the resources, at least watch his TED talk on the same.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Press "A" To Jump

"You're becoming a very specific kind of guru," my best friend divulged after one of those long conversations that only happen on road trips. "You're like that character at the very beginning of a video game when there's a tutorial that teaches you things like, 'navigate with the arrow keys' and 'press A to jump'. Nobody will even survive for very long, let alone defeat the final boss, with just those skills. But if it weren't for knowledge like this we'd get stuck in corners and never regenerate more than a few feet from where we started."

The things I said to him that day are things I'd never before articulated outside of my own head, because they seem too obvious to me to be worth saying. I said them in this case because I was exasperated, couldn't think of any other reason he seemed to be running directly into a corner over and over again, and wasn't having much luck with asking simple questions. I was expecting him to respond with, "Duh, I know that; the actual problem is x," which would finally allow access to the actual problem.

But no, the truth is that sometimes very smart people intent on winning the game simply never learn how to use the controller. So, just in case you happen to be button mashing at the moment, here are the things I said that have helped him take much more control of his life.

You have values. Winning means fulfilling those values. Fulfilling values requires identifying and accomplishing causally relevant goals.

If your goals have not already been accomplished, it means that the universe is not in your preferred configuration yet. Since there are a whole lot of possible configurations of the universe, unless you have extremely general goals, the odds are pretty small that the universe will just happen to end up in your favorite one if you simply wait. That doesn't mean, "Don't get too set on specific goals, 'cause you'll probably be disappointed." It means, "Don't wait." The basic game mechanics consist of learning to manipulate causal chains to increase the odds that the universe ends up in the configurations you like, and doesn't end up in the configurations you don't like. Manipulating causal chains means trying to understand them and then reaching out and actually acting on them accordingly.

In other words, figure out what you want, figure out how to get it, and then do that.

It sounds so obvious that I'm embarrassed to say it. But people really do seem to spend most of their time not doing this. They just sort of stand around waiting and hoping that things will go their way. They waste a lot of time lamenting the cruelty of fate when bad things happen, and feeling blessed when good things happen. When Karma shits on them even through they tried really hard, they feel helpless instead of wondering whether they're trying the wrong thing.

So when you're stuck in a corner, make sure you're holding the controller and not button mashing: Figure out what you want, figure out how to get it, and then do that.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Running Without Lying (To Ourselves Or Each Other)

The truth about barefoot running is that the truth about barefoot running is hard to find. But so far, it really does seem to be better than running in cushy-motion-controlling-arch-supporty shoes. So let's be honest: Barefooters hurt their feet a lot, more research is needed, and we should be a bit confused about all of this in the mean time.

I've been running for about five years now. But I wasn't really a runner until four years ago when, like many, I read Born to Run and fell deeply in love. Immediately upon finishing the book, I started training barefoot, transitioned to minimalist running shoes (specifically Vibram KSOs), and vowed to one day run an ultramarathon. I even brainstormed ways of testing out persistence hunting for myself.

For those who've never heard of this stuff, here are the central claims that came to fuel the barefoot running movement.
  1. Distance running is central to human evolutionary history. We evolved to run great distances--as in a good hundred miles or so at a time--pursuing prey relentlessly and forcing it to trot until it keels over from exhaustion. While we're certainly not built for speed, we're good enough at endurance to be deadly.
  2. The cushy footwear you'll find on display at any athletics store--arranged according to arch support, motion control, and activity type--is largely responsible for the majority of running injuries. It encourages landing on the heel rather than the front of the foot; it enables weak, atrophied, useless foot muscles (the true nature of "flat feet"); and it prevents pronation of the foot, which is a biomechanical feature rather than a defect to be corrected by orthotics. As a result, shod runners collide with the ground much harder than do barefoot runners, and most of the shock goes straight through the heel and knee, rather than into the foot and calf muscles that have evolved to take it.
  3. Running is good for you. Shoes and poor form are not. Everyone should run like the Tarahumara: barefoot or in minimalist footwear, in short, quick steps, with a forefoot strike instead of a heel strike, and probably not on concrete.
I originally set out in this post to write a well-reasoned discussion of the evidence for these claims. Last time I looked, no such thing existed; there was an awful lot of cheering, hype, and speculation, but almost no evaluation of actual evidence not taken directly from Born to Run. To my delight, this time I discovered that someone has already done it for me--and done it well.

The barefoot running sequence at Condensed Science has three main parts. The first discusses the evolutionary basis for barefoot running. The second is about biomechanics. Third is an analysis of injury rates in running, and it's the one wherein the author seriously impressed me by explaining what we actually do and don't know at this point rather than merely arguing for her favorite side.

In Summary

Yeah, we may well have been "born to run". Given that, runners are injured at surprisingly high rates: Somewhere around half of us are injured each year. You're more likely to end up with joint injuries if you run in conventional athletic shoes, and you're more likely to injure your feet if you run barefoot-ish (You don't say!). You're definitely less likely overall to be injured if you run barefoot, so even though Vibrams do not in fact prevent all injury, they're better by comparison. Biomechanics is complicated, and relevant studies are sparse; it is ok to be uncertain and to make the least bad guess based on whatever evidence is available.


ETA: Just to be clear, I'm making no claims here about walking.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Availability: Imaginations Gone Wild

The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut we use in place of time-consuming statistical algorithms when making decisions under uncertainty.

When we estimate the likelihood of being eaten by a grumple bug, we substitute for other statistical methods a subjective measurement of how easy it is to imagine being eaten by a grumple bug. If I live in a small nomadic tribe where no one has ever recounted the tale of how his great aunt was eaten by a grumple bug while out hunting--indeed, a tribe where no one has ever even heard of a grumple bug--I'll understandably estimate the likelihood of being eaten by a grumple bug to be low. As a result, I'll spend very little time worrying about grumple bugs, and will instead devote my resources to watching for dangers I hear about all the time, like tigers, rival tribes, and poisonous mushrooms that take your soul to the afterlife even before your body bites the dust. Grumple bugs aren't very available in memory compared to tigers.

If, however, the tale of the time great aunt Cathy was eaten by a tiger while out on a hunt is told over and over again around the camp fire, I may begin to spend more of my time watching out for tigers than avoiding heat exhaustion. Never mind that heat exhaustion is actually much more likely and equally deadly. When that happens, the availability heuristic dons its other masque: the availability bias.

Ease of Imagery

Availability, as both a heuristic and a bias, apparently comes down to ease of imagery. By "imagery", I mean something broader than "how easy it is to conjure up a visual representation". When you imagine a tiger, you probably don't just see a still photograph or painting of a tiger in your mind. Imagination can be fully immersive; imaginary tigers are big and orange with black stripes, but they also growl, slink stealthily while stalking prey, drip wet blood from their fangs, and smell of musk and raw meat.

Several things contribute to ease of imagery. One is actual frequency in the local environment, which might  or might not match global frequency. Maybe grumple bugs are a thing a couple hundred miles south, and I'll be caught unaware if the tribe heads that direction. Another is repetition. It's useful to rely on ease of imagery when I'm unlikely to hear about grumple bugs very often in a place where there are no grumple bugs; on the other hand, I'll probably hear about tigers more frequently than the occurrence of tigers in the local environment warrants, because tiger stories are way more gripping than heat exhaustion stories. They have conflict, protagonists, antagonists, narrative arcs, and often social drama. That's the formula for deep significance to a human brain. "Tom died 'cause he got too hot" doesn't measure up. As with tigers on the ancestral savanna, so too with cougars in the modern American Midwest, alligators in the sewers of New York, and kidney theft.

Tigers seem more at home in the imagination than does heat exhaustion, don't they? I can come up with an equally detailed description of heat exhaustion if I try, but it takes more work. There's something more going on with ease of imagery than frequency of exposure and narrative structure. Since I'm cheating with the picture of the tiger in the top right, imagine instead a human-sized duck holding an umbrella while playing a kazoo.

Got it? Ok, now imagine the availability heuristic. Very different sort of experience, right?

Here's what's up with the wacky duck. The duck is simple, concrete, vivid (for multiple sensory modalities), and emotionally engaging (humorous, specifically, and also surprising due to its strangeness). The availability heuristic, by contrast, is complicated, abstract, murky, and boring (at least at first blush).

To recap, the core of availability is ease of imagery, which is a combination of frequency of exposure (repetition), meaningful narrative context, concreteness, vividness, and emotional impact.

It's not true, of course, that drugged travelers sometimes wake up in bathtubs full of ice to discover that their interanal organs have been stolen for sale on the black market. But it's a concrete, vivid, meaningful story oft repeated for emotional impact, so people accept it as fact before System Two ever gets a chance to go, "Wait a minute, you want me to believe what?"

Further Resources

Monday, November 4, 2013

Salvaging Sacraments

I'm a recovering Catholic. Although I don't believe in God and don't attend Mass except on rare occasion for the purpose of singing, I miss the Sacraments dearly, and in particular I miss the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

I get that Confession seems kinda weird at first blush. You're telling someone who may or may not be a total stranger about all of the bad things you did, highly personal and otherwise, possibly in great detail, in order to receive imaginary forgiveness from an imaginary god, and then you're letting the stranger dole out a punishment that might not be at all related to your actual sins. I can understand why that would appear creepy, pointless, and horribly unpleasant, perhaps even to a pseudo-Catholic let alone to an atheist and total outsider.

Let me see if I can explain why anyone would ever be motivated to go to Confession out of something besides obligation or fear of damnation. Catholics often say that the Sacraments are "outward signs of inward grace". When I was little, coming to understand (some of) what they meant by that had a pretty profound effect. Abstract ideas like contrition, forgiveness, devotion, and faith are invisible and elusive. It's not always easy to get your brain around them enough for them to impact your daily life.

It's a bit like when you genuinely believe that it's a good idea to learn calculus, but "calculus" feels like such a murky, distant, impenetrable concept that you're not sure how to do anything about it. Sacraments are concrete symbols for abstract ideas and events that help you get a handle on similarly murky things like your relationship with God.

If I made a Catholic-style sacramental rite out of calculus, it would go something like this.

  1. Recite: "Mathematics is vast and immaculate. My understanding is meager and flawed. May studying the Calculus one day unite me with Mathematical perfection. Amen."
  2. Open a Calculus textbook. Read a section. Do the exercises. Reflect on what I do and don't understand, what I could have done better, and what flaws in my pre-existing understanding are preventing me from progressing further.
  3. State my current understanding of what I read to a professor. Show them my exercises. Listen to their feedback. 
  4. The professor recites: "Mathematics is vast and immaculate. May your understanding advance toward perfection. In the name of the Calculus, I grant you your next assignment." (I receive the assignment.)
Reconciliation is similar.

  1. Examine my conscience. Call to mind the sins I've committed, and reflect on them.
  2. Recite (something along the lines of): "Most merciful God, I confess that I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what I have done, and by what I have left undone. I have not loved you with my whole heart; I have not loved my neighbors as myself. I am truly sorry, and I humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on me and forgive me; that I may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen."
  3. Go to a priest and tell him what I've done wrong. Maybe talk to him about it a bit so I better understand why I did what I did and why I am sorry.
  4. The priest says, "Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life." Then he assigns a penance, an actionable plan for atonement, and I carry it out.
Inasmuch as reconciliation can have positive effects--and I think it can(1)--what we're dealing with here is a sort of urge propagation.

Through concrete actions and carefully designed rituals, you are forcing yourself to encounter something you'd rather flinch away from, and you're grappling with it right now instead of leaving your future selves to endure a vague and undirected sense of guilt over mistakes you don't even think about let alone correct. Religious or not, nobody benefits from ignoring problems that need solving, and nobody's as good at allowing abstract ideas like "being a good person" to transform their day-to-day lives as they are at making incremental improvements via specific actions (though those actions may be motivated by abstract ideas). Lofty resolutions are not effective without well-designed mechanisms of action, and rituals are awesome at being that.

I don't think you'd need to change much to salvage the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Try this, and see how it goes. (And if you do try it, tell me how it went.)
  1. Pick a regular time to think about what mistakes you made that week.
  2. Write them down. Consider why each was a mistake, and why you made it. For the most important ones, think of plans for mitigating or repairing the damage if possible, and for preventing the mistake in the future.
  3. If you know someone who would be willing to help you with this, tell them some of your thoughts, and request advice for improving your plans. If you're the sort of person who's likely to benefit from it, choose a highly respected mentor instead of a peer. Make sure you know precisely what specific action to take next for each mistake you want to address. (This is something like, "This evening, ask Cathy whether what I said hurt her, and actually listen to what she has to say about it." It is not something like, "Be nicer to Cathy.")
  4. Take the actions on your list. After each action, punch the air and shout "VICTORY!" When your whole list is done, call up your friend so they can tell you YAY!

What other parts of life might be improved by secular rituals?

1) Don't get me wrong; I'm aware that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is harmful overall--as are all the Sacraments--since it propagates and reinforces a destructive memeplex. And probably for other reasons.