Happy Birthday, Ursula K. Le Guin!


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Ursula Le Guin turns 85 today. She has been my favourite author for a very long time, not just because she tells great stories and writes excellent, thought-provoking essays but because she is so skilled at doing so, in an understated way: she makes complexity seem deceptively easy. I still remember reading the lastish book in a series and delightedly hopping up and down saying to my partner, “She took everything she set up in the first book and turned it inside out!”

And she’s funny.

“I am a man. Now you may think I’ve made some kind of silly mistake about gender, or maybe that I’m trying to fool you, because my first name ends in a, and I own three bras, and I’ve been pregnant five times, and other things like that that you might have noticed, little details. …I admit it, I am actually a very poor imitation or substitute man, and you could see it when I tried to wear those army surplus clothes with ammunition pockets that were trendy and I looked like a hen in a pillowcase. ”

I found this quote on Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings site: Ursula K. Le Guin on Being a Man. It’s a lovely read, but why stop there? You should buy the book.  

And if you want to read more and haven’t already found it, her blog is on her website. (And at Book View Cafe as well.)

From the world pool: October 18, 2014


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From the world pool this week, it’s all in the socio-political category:

Anita Sarkeesian hit the news again, this time because she cancelled a speaking gig at Utah State University. Did she cancel because someone threatened a “Montreal-style massacre” of her and people who attended? Nope. She cancelled because the University police refused to do a screening check for weapons; apparently (1) doing so is prohibited by Utah’s concealed carry laws and (2) they considered it unnecessary, given how often she receives death threats. (!!!) And as we all know, there’s no reason to think that someone who threatens people online or through email is likely to carry the threat out, is there?

Related: Brianna Wu is mad as hell. “They threatened the wrong woman this time. I am the Godzilla of bitches. I have a backbone of pure adamantium, and I’m sick of seeing them abuse my friends.”

And speaking of online harassment… Twitter can fix its harassment problem, but why mess with success?

The Weaponization of Emotion: Sara Wanenchak. A couple of months old now, but a good analysis.

I love this Zadie Smith quote. It explains so much.

No just-for-fun cuteness or coolness this week, I’m afraid. But I did find this inspiring:

Trans model Geena Rocero is gender proud. (Watch the TED talk video.)

Fuck you, Amy.


Let me let you in on a secret, Amy. You are not my friend. In fact, I don’t want to know you. Ever. Yet you keep stalking me—calls every day or two. Friendly calls. You just want to be nice to me, right? To give me things? And you’re such a lovely person, really, you must be, you have such a friendly voice.

Fuck you.

I don’t want the free cruise to the Bahamas I’ll get if I just “press 1 now.” Just like I didn’t want what you offered me when you said you were working for Telus. Or WestJet. Can’t keep a steady job, I see.

At least the guys telling me my Windows computer (the one I don’t own) is being hacked (and I please need to give them control of it so they can fix the problem) provide me with the opportunity to ask them how their mothers feel about them being a scum-sucking scamming crook, and lay incidental curses on their manhood. But no, you don’t have the courtesy to actually be anything but a recording.

But I can assure you, I will never press 1. Or 9, to be removed from your contact list, for that matter.

Fuck you, Amy.

(There, I feel better now.)

From the world pool: October 12, 2014


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Lots of stuff this week.


Why sexual assault survivors stay quiet: a short cartoon summary by Jim Hines.

Trouble at the Koolaid Point, by Kathy Sierra: a chilling summary of one woman’s experience of online harassment and how the harasser ended up being the person who got far too much public support.

And… the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing convention happened this weekend. Someone thought it was a good idea to run a “male allies” panel, with top level execs from Google, Facebook, Intuit and GoDaddy (!!!) to talk about what women should do to make tech more welcoming to them. There is a pretty typical response from an attendee here and a summary of what happened afterwards here.

But here’s the best part. The whole thing provided a great demo of how backchannel chat (on Twitter under the hashtag #ghcmanwatch, storified here) can provide more pithy (and more snarky, and more amusing) content than a panel itself. A lot can go on under the “official” radar: activists handed out a satirical bingo card to attendees on their way in to the event, and the attendees carefully checked things off on it until someone did actually yell “Bingo!” in the middle of the panel.


The typography of speed (if you can’t make a good font you can’t design cars, and other unexpected lessons from BMW)


The Hidden Costs of E-books at University Libraries (via nina de jesus)  


Photos of a beloved bull terrier. MY pets aren’t this amiable about posing.

For some reason the term “Social Justice Warrior,” applied to anyone who promotes equality of opportunity for all people, has become a pejorative in certain parts of the internet, especially the part inhabited by traditional macho gamers. It has kind of backfired, as people who support equality are generally proud to claim the title. Hence these SJW buttons—well, actually they’re for a whole range of RPG character classes…  Personally, I want to be a Social Justice Rogue.

A Polyphonic overtone singing demonstration  (via TiroTypeworks)

And some commercials:

For a cell phone.

For Caterpillar.

For, um, Carrot.



Honour and tattletaling


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So… a “thinking” post.

Last week I wrote a post about naming names when someone crosses a social boundary, and asked why there is such a reflexive response that to do so is wrong. In a Twitter comment in response to this, @UrsulaV said: “I wonder if it’s because we hammer into kids from a very young age not to be a tattletale and it sticks in bad ways?” And that got me thinking and expanding on her thought.

Every once in a while a youth gets violently attacked, or raped, or murdered, or commits a violent act themselves, and in the aftermath it’s discovered that other youth knew what was happening and did not speak up, and there is a lot of hand-wringing and analysis as to why this is so. (This happens with adults, too, but the public handwringing seems less intense to me.) Even a cursory google search shows how much has been written on this subject—it’s seen as a significant social problem, and so there’s everything from sensational comment in the popular media to in-depth research and analysis in academic journals.

After reading @UrsulaV’s comment I had some thoughts on all this. But I’ll start with a couple of disclaimers. First, my thoughts on this are some brief and random thoughts only, not the result of studying all this material and attempting to become knowledgeable on the subject. I don’t have the time or inclination to make this an area of study, and I’m not pretending to be an expert. Secondly, I do know that this is an extremely complex sociological issue—I get that—and that many things play into it in complicated ways. These thoughts address only a very small part of a much larger context.

So, with those provisos, this is what occurred to me.

We teach kids at a very young age that it’s wrong to be a tattletale. So what are we teaching them?

The first dictionary definition that came up online when I googled the word tattletale was: “a person, especially a child, who reveals secrets or informs on others.” A simple clear, definition: and the word “informs” is important. Read the Wikipedia entry on “informants” and note how strongly it is associated with people supplying information not disinterestedly, but for their own gain.

Most parents, I think, want to know if a kid does something that is cruel to others, or could cause harm to themselves or others. If Kid X is leading other kids into dangerous situations, parents will want to hear about it, so they can stop it. Parents see this as telling tales for the greater good, not for personal advantage.

On the other hand, parents are likely to see snitching in self-interest as something they don’t want their kid to do. THAT’s the behaviour most parents want to nip in the bud: telling tales to deliberately and maliciously harm someone else, or to advantage yourself in relationship to them. We want to protect kids from harm, so we want to know what is happening with them, but we also want to teach kids to be social creatures within a community, not sociopathic predators outside it, and so we tell them “don’t be a tattletale.”

I think this is a distinction, understood by adults, that often gets lost when the “don’t be a tattletale” message is given to kids.

This lack of distinction is carried on as we grow up, as the concept of honour plays into this. Honourable behaviour is seen as an important goal—we want our kids to develop a code of honour as they grow up. Superheroes follow codes of honour, villains don’t. (What exactly constitutes honourable behaviour, and how it is socially and contextually defined and enforced, is a whole other issue, one I don’t want to get into here.)

Popular media reinforces the necessity of honour, but sometimes gets sketchy on the details of what being honourable requires. An honorable person is often presented in the abstract as doing things for the greater good, rather than self interest, thus reinforcing the message that was initiated with “don’t be a tattletale.” But what are the details? Often “being honourable” seems to get reduced to a too-simplistic shorthand that doesn’t fully address the concrete contextual complications of how to be honourable, or the level of personal responsibility that being honourable requires, or the problem that being honourable can be very hard and uncomfortable work when it goes against social norms.

It seems to me that in practice, this lack of depth can lead to a conflation of “code of honour” and “code of silence,” and that is problematic. Effectively it says that to be honourable is to keep your mouth shut—don’t be a tattletale. This is reinforced by our unconscious inclinations: keeping silent is easy to do, compared to speaking against others and opening yourself to attack, which makes keeping silent attractive and discourages us from thinking too much about the implications of doing so.

I don’t know what the solution is to this lack of depth and distinction, or how that gets changed. “Don’t be a tattletale” may be intended as shorthand for “Think of the greater good, don’t harm others because you want to advantage yourself.” But it leaves out too much—we can’t just assume that kids (or youth, or adults, for that matter) understand it contextually. Maybe we simply need to trust that kids are smarter than we think, even when they’re young, and find better ways to explain these ideas more thoroughly to them, instead of trusting to verbal and conceptual shortcuts.




Extreme closeup of fruitfly

Original photo by John Tann, CC by 2.0

Some days I feel like I have the mind of a fruitfly. I wander around the house muttering, “Where the !@#$!!! did I put _____?” I walk into a room and think, “Why did I come into this room?” I frequently forget to do things. (I mark things on my calendar but forget to look at it.) I start wondering what the signs of dementia are.

And then there are days like those I had this week. I was asked by a potential client if I had the skills to do something. This was something I’d never done, and involved using software I’d never used, so I downloaded the trial version of the software and took a look at it. I decided that in order to use a particular technique I needed another piece of software, and bought it. And then downloaded a third program because somehow the one I’d used for that task previously had had that functionality deleted from its last iteration (Apple, I’m looking at you).

So in the end: in 2.5 days, I figured out how to use 3 software programs that I had never touched before, and demonstrated that I was capable of using a variety of techniques to get the results I wanted. After all those days of feeling like I’m mentally losing it, it’s nice to have a day of “I rock!”


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