Saturday, April 30, 2011

New hair

Was trying to look like Hansel (young Hedwig) from Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Somehow, my cheap old red dye wouldn't take the bleach, so I have a tequila sunrise instead. Was considering doing white on top of it for formal, but I'm fond of it.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Future of SCIENCE

For my class Hist 1445: Science and Religion in American History. Good course. Not a substantial paper in any sense, but here ya go.

William Ogburn on the Future of Science

It's remarkable to read William Ogburn's 1930 article in The Scientific Monthly predicting the future of sociology, in view of where the sciences have come in the past 80 years. Frankly, he gets almost everything entirely right. Sociology trended towards the “hard” sciences in its methods and the attitudes of its scientists; all sciences became more descriptive than proscriptive, differentiated but cooperative; scientists who chose to be active in advocacy or other non-scientific fields struggled to separate this as much as possible from their work. Realistic with his predictions, Ogburn understood that these are ideals, endpoints that may never be realistically reached. But the fact remains that, among mainstream scientists, his attitude is dominant and his goals are shared by most. As a loyal follower of the sciences and an occasional scientist myself, I was astounded by Ogburn's statements, and I too share his sentiments on science as a whole, and the ideal place of the social sciences.

First let us focus on Ogburn's own field: sociology. He is critical of current, sometimes non-scientific and proscriptive methods, as well as the collusion of sociology with politics, ethics, philosophy and government. He finds sociology papers archaically pretentious and literary. His predictions for the field would eliminate or modify all of these perceived problems with the field. On the topic of papers, Ogburn predicts a trending towards the hard sciences, which at this time begins producing shorter, more empirically-minded papers for a purely scientific audience. The goal of sociology papers will be the same, namely for the audience to be “the scientific guild, and no attempt will be made to make these articles readable for shop girls or for the high-school youth. Articles will always be accompanied by the supporting data. Hence the text will be shorter and the tables and records longer” (Ogburn 301). This type of reference article is precisely what one finds in science journals today, only occasionally with ideas for application added in the conclusion, and the social sciences are no exception.

This would seem to make science an insulated field, purposefully avoiding contact with the public at large, both in spreading its findings and in advising the public on how to implement them for the greater good. To an extent, Ogburn wants this in order to improve the working of scientific study, but he doesn't require scientific knowledge to be kept from the public sphere – or scientists, for that matter. The multiple personalities of the scientist will come up later, but as to the public persona, it is possible for a scientist, or non-scientist, to dedicate themselves to translating scientific knowledge and advances to a broad audience. One can think here of Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins*, or even Alan Alda, host of the popular PBS show Nova, as modern examples of this. The goals of such individuals is to “show the human significance of these discoveries and measurements...[to] dramatize science, which will rewrite scientific results in terms of slang” (301). This is where proscriptive science, scientific journalism, ethics and philosophy, education and science-fiction, come into play in raising awareness of the importance of science to our lives, and raising funding from the public and private sectors.

But to accumulate real, hard scientific knowledge, the scientist must change his methods and attitude. Emotion, belief, and an eye toward application must be abandoned. As now, the scientist spends most of his time in a lab doing tedious work, taking down evidence and drawing reasonable conclusions from it, rarely aiming for a breakthrough but sometimes hitting on one. Though statistics as a field still exists separately from other sciences, Ogburn was right in predicting that “every one will be a statistician, that is, nearly every one. All the universities will have statistical laboratories and the individual workers will have plenty of machines, all of them electric” (303). This conservative prediction has easily been realized. The scientist relies on technology to help evaluate results and to produce them in the first place. Even for those who study social behavior, computer science and the machines that implement it are indispensable in analyzing results; to attempt to bypass this empirical analysis is to forfeit some credibility among your peers, or to forfeit the auspices of science.

Ogburn thinks that to attain the necessary attitude of scientific ambivalence and fixation on results and rigid methods, not on interesting headlines and the production of belief, the scientist must leave his presuppositions at the door of the lab, along with some degree of intellectuality. He admits rightfully that intellect and creativity are necessary for producing innovative, viable hypotheses, and in this way intellect is a scientist's prerogative, but extending this to overlook the need to verify claims or seek out evidence is an error. No longer can papers eschew evidence in favor of interesting mental suppositions, often based on inadmissible “gut feelings” and the like. For an interesting hypothesis to progress to the establishment of knowledge based on the theory, the proposed “idea of value to science must be formulated in some sort of form capable of demonstration or proof; then must follow the proof or verification” (302). This hearkens back to ancient theories of empiricism popularly represented by Aristotle, and has shown itself to be the basis for most viable science, sociology included.

These descriptions of the ideal scientist and his many potential identities brings us to a key aspect of Ogburn's idea of the scientist, and perhaps his most reasonably objectionable claim. One of his harshest criticisms of modern sociology is its tendency to overlap with other fields such as politics and public policy, wherein social scientists attempt to focus their work and results on practical applications and estimations of value and correct action. In his view, this should not be the goal or position of the scientist; he gathers the information, and at most offers conservative advice to social workers or people in other fields as to what it means and how it can be reasonably applied. Though the knowledge needed for social scientists and social workers is roughly the same, their functions in society, and in dealing with that knowledge, are separate and should be kept that way. The social worker should not claim to have the ability to produce evidence and scientific knowledge; the social scientist should not cater his research to intended functions or desired results.

However, this does not preclude a scientist from operating in multiple fields separately from his actual work. In describing the scientist's potential to also be an artist or a politician, he admits that “In some rare cases a person may be both a scientist and an artist. But, if so, the guiding of the ship of state will be done by only one of his two personalities, the executive one” (304). He offers similar explanations for how a social scientist can function, outside the lab, as a social worker, political advisor, or in any other adjacent or separate field – mostly those with practical, real-life applications. Here is where Ogburn could be veering into implausible, or unreasonable, territory, though many would applaud this sentiment. Can someone really partition their minds into separately-functioning identities – doctor, researcher, artist, politician, advisor? It could be functionally impossible to not desire a breakthrough in the lab, to have no emotional investment in your work, to carry out your work without thinking of how it could be used to increase your funding or be sold to NIH as an important, applicable breakthrough. Indeed, the existence of such bodies as the NIH and federal committees on the sciences, populated by actual scientists, would seem to require far too much if all its members had to divorce themselves from their own work and scientific minds in order to participate.

Yet Ogburn and I would argue that this is ideal, and attainable to a lesser extent than actual personality fragmentation. Francis Crick can have his own non-scientific beliefs, contribute substantially to the realm of scientific knowledge, and advocate for the sciences publicly, including sciences that he is unattached to. Our own Prof. George Whitesides can have a bustling, rigorous lab full of grad students, teach introductory organic chemistry, fund and cooperate with health-related NGOs and their innovative technologies, and spend time as a top advisor in Washington, without having his various interests and functions bleed into each other in detrimental ways. It might be difficult to avoid entirely, or detract partially from his ability to commit fully to any one of his ventures, but nothing stops him from succeeding in every one of them and contributing to the scientific, international, and academic communities. As Ogburn says, there are those who are best suited to one field alone: monotonous, unfeeling scientific research, empathetic social work, decisive political action – and there are others who can succeed in multiple fields, to a greater or lesser level of achievement, without letting one trickle into the other.

I will close on a similar note to Ogburn. For social science, and all sciences, to function most effectively in advancing our knowledge of the world and improving it, those who attain that knowledge must operate outside the realms of practicality, emotion, expediency and all other biases as much as possible. Then either by handing this information over to other experts and workers, or by changing hats to help do it themselves, this knowledge can be made publicly accessible and useful in various ways. But beyond being able to work in multiple areas of science, technology and policy, the scientist is allowed to have a free, creative, awe-inspired intellect at the world he studies, even at the work he does which should inspire him anyway. I am reminded again of Carl Sagan, who may not have been a prominent researcher but was in every way imaginable a beacon of science for the public and scientists alike. But apart from making science accessible and exciting for the public through fiction and non-fiction alike, a wonderful aspect of Sagan's personality was his unadulterated wonder at the universe, at the capability of man and science to understand it, and at the places scientific advancement can take us. No better figure, I think, exemplifies Ogburn's closing statements, and no other figure stands as a better role model for what I'd like to believe science is and should be.

*In a recent conversation with Prof. Dawkins, he told me that he believes the stigma against the public scientist who makes the subject accessible to the public is unfair. Even to communicate with professionals in other fields, one must use metaphor and simplification to get ideas across. He went as far as to say that all working scientists should work to have this dual role.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

How To Seem Like An Asshole In 7 Easy Steps!

Insignificant social interactions have an insidious way of shaping one's external persona, especially when they're the only social interactions you have with most people (out of necessity or choice). Granted, this generally means any misconceptions that these interactions would produce are limited to people who you barely know or have reason to care about. Certainly it doesn't matter what they think of you in the long run. But if you're particularly obsessed with your social life, or painfully neurotic, as I am, about offending or slighting ANYone, then this can become an irritating, sometimes incapacitating, fixation.

So in honor of my own experiences and observations of this phenomenon, here's a helpful guide showing how to inadvertently come off as a terrible person despite how nice and considerate you actually are. Especially useful in settings such as the workplace, communal living spaces, or school.

1. Be focused on what you're doing or who you're talking to. If you're very involved with your work, or a very good listener, then you're guaranteed to offend anyone who desperately wants your attention while you're busy caring about something else.

2. Have close friends and not-so-close friends. This seems like a no-brainer, but you'd be amazed how intensely hurt someone can feel that you wouldn't go to their premiere concert because you're at your brother's wedding. I mean, you just met a week ago! How could you forget?!

3. Misjudge someone's proximity to a door or elevator. Heaven forbid you stay there with the door open making them run awkwardly, OR fail to keep it open when they're a block away!

4. Be shy. This is a HUGE one and probably the most powerful weapon in my awkwardness arsenal. If I've ever come off rude or ambivalent to you, this is most probably the reason. If you're shy, you're never quite sure when it's appropriate to talk to someone, what to say, what to do, etc. So if your ex-roommate walks by, or their ex-girlfriend, or their ex-girlfriend's ex-TF who you met once at a party, you desperately avoid eye contact while glancing back and forth to see if they're trying to catch your eye or say hi or smile and oh god, is that even them?! This has been so powerful as to make me some serious enemies AND scare me away from public places like dining halls or streets.

5. Have commitments and a schedule. “Sorry, I'm in a rush, ten minutes late to class but let's catch up!” is practically tantamount to “You're a worthless peon, why in god's name would I make time to say hello to you?”

6. Have 2 or less eyes. Nothing quite like NOT seeing your best friend across the street to the left behind that “No Parking” sign to ruin a relationship.

7. Own a phone. In addition, don't always be able to answer that phone or respond to messages within 2-3 minutes. Sometimes a trivial conversation will have to be cut short for a more important matter. And sometimes a more important matter – or sleep – will prevent responding to a trivial message. This conundrum is no doubt the culmination of the technological destruction of human interactions.

There are plenty others, including: not having photographic memory, having priorities, having a sense of humor or lacking one at key moments, not being able to be genuinely interested in everything, only being able to speak to one person at a time...Countless ways, really. Many overlapping.

I've fallen victim to the asshole-assumption in numerous occasions on account of such interactions, as the accuser and the accused, and I apologize on both fronts. I feel awful whenever I'm conscious enough to realize I've let myself misjudge someone on the basis of these things, but as you could probably tell by now, I'm really good at feeling awful for things. So yeah, be wary, I guess, of looking like or assuming that someone else is A DICK.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Sucker Punch. Yeah, really.

Sorry it's been a while, oh blog. I still owe you posts about my future and religion and things like that, I think. But first I'm going to talk about Sucker Punch because I remember it.

So Sucker Punch. Getting bad reviews. Was worried going in to it, but it was a last-minute decision for $5, and at the very least the visuals looked wonderful, so I thought why not. Zack Snyder has sometimes let me down (as a classicist, 300 was iffy), but Watchmen and the implausibly-good remake of Dawn of the Dead convinced me that he could make a damn good movie under the right conditions. So I was in.

Or I should add, the fact that the visuals included some pretty, doll-looking girls in skimpy outfits being badasses in an anime-esque manner helped considerably. Also made me worried about the exploitative or patronizing content, but I was in anyway.

Visuals? Awesome in my book. That was pretty much guaranteed – I don't know if he's made a not-gorgeous movie, actually. Very video game in a good way. I also appreciated the look of the girls, while definitely artificial and bordering on jail-bait; I'm not one to reject the impossibly-beautiful depictions of men or women in art, even low art – big difference between this and digitally-enhanced women on magazine covers for young girls, I think. Feel free to disagree. The outfits were lovely. I might have preferred at least one butch character, gay or not, but I'm fine with what I got. Didn't see it in 3-D or anything, but I was happy with what I got and fuck 3-D anyway. Also, Spartacus: Blood and Sand prepared me for the abuse of slow-mo, but it was a little annoying I guess.

Story? Who the fuck cares, honestly. It wasn't amazing. There were a laughable amount of cliches and very little – maybe none – of the plot wasn't predictable. Even the “sucker punch” (HAHA I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE MR. SNYDER) of the ending wasn't that suckery punchery. I loved the idea and a great deal of the execution, actually. I liked the iterative quality of the plot – 3 fantasies embedded in each other in a much less sophisticated way than Inception, quest for 5 items, 5 girls to go through, etc. Considering that the story was impressively created by Snyder and a co-writer, it was rather good. Mostly if one is able to have fun with it, laugh at a reasonable amount of the pathos, and suspend some goddamn disbelief.

Content? It was clear early on that, as usual with Snyder, realism was not a priority. Which, once again, is fine. This is a fantasy in more than a few ways – sexual, story-wise, etc. Anyone expecting a clearly empowering or Kill Bill-esque story of vengeance will be disappointed. But this story was somewhat tailor-made to Felice, I must say. It is fucking absurd in just the way that I enjoy. Beyond ridiculous, sometimes trashy, often campy and aesthetically-minded. The perfect mix of stereotypical femininity, empowering kick-ass-ness, and cheesecake that is clearly represented by the pin-ups that litter my bedroom walls. I like different mixes, like that in Baise-Moi or Lady Vengeance or the Millennium trilogy, but this was acceptable in ways that didn't make me puke. Yes they wear short skirts and ridiculously fight in heels and grunt like porn stars and never have so much as a hair out of place or a blemish on their porcelain skin, but they respond to being victims by fighting back on their own, oddly without the help of a male hero (unless you count the sensei, Leonard-Nemoy-looking guy) and without being subjugated by them very often without serious revenge. I anticipate mostly no one will agree with this assessment, but that's all good.

Another plausible reason this was so appealing to me is a peculiar fantasy of mine which I know is shared by at least a few others. In the right mindset – depressed, feeling powerless, feeling like a badass mofo – as I walk in public, a part of me desperately desires to be confronted. On a dark street I want to be intimidated by a mugger, someone bigger than me, often a man (not to be sexist, but my history of fearing men as a child and hating my gender for years is the root of this), or be physically attacked, mugged, whatever. And I want to fight the fuck back. I want to pound them into the ground while yelling and not taking any shit or being a victim. Maybe this would be a later vigilante quest, but ideally I'd just like to tear them down right there. Kill them. Do my ego proud. Do my paranoid, agoraphobic father proud by being the resilient, powerful daughter he made me into.

Am I really going to be attacked this way? Probably not. Or maybe plausibly so, I really don't know. I try not to let it happen, even when I test the water to vaguely hope I will. At least I've been verbally berated from afar, and responded often in-line with this aggressive desire of mine; that feels good. Am I likely to respond this way to actually being attacked? I'm not really sure. I've lapsed hard in my physical strength, my martial arts training, my fighting instincts. I know the smart moves – to give the money over, be vigilant and report the incident, don't necessarily resist to avoid being hurt further or killed. I imagine I'd occasionally look back on such an event and feel ashamed, regret not living out that odd fantasy. Would I be na├»ve and irresponsible to take the other approach? Could I decide reasonably well in the moment? Would I actually win? I just don't know. I'm good at judging situations. Beyond that, I don't know.

I know this is a somewhat common fantasy, to some extent. It's a response to feeling weak, being abused in the past, feeling powerless, resenting one's gender or the position it puts you in sometimes. Sometimes it's very dangerous. Sometimes it results in serious violence issues. I think I'm far short of that. But it's hard for me not to be empathetic to those who end up at that extreme.

Sometimes my fantasy has me intensely butch, being the male I often desire to be, sending out a “fuck you” to my gender and the attacker's assumptions about me, male or female. Or I'm as feminine as can be, assumed to be a victim, or one who wouldn't resist or say no, and I turn the tables and prove that it makes no goddamn difference and I don't have to “try to be male” to defend myself or prove my strength. The latter is no doubt why Sucker Punch was appealing to me. Even though the girls go through intense abuse, are forced to be victims for a while, come off that way often, and wear those ridiculous outfits, they DO fight back in a very real and “fuck you” way. They aren't masculine at all. It doesn't matter. They don't always win and there are serious repercussions, even in this ridiculous fantasy world that bypasses most consequences. The ending is predictably not unambiguously happy. The movie is, I will readily admit, not brilliant or original in a lot of ways. But goddamn do I appreciate this aspect of it. It's living out that fantasy, without having to lament the fact that I don't look like them, can't, will never be an anime doll with a short skirt who wields a sword against a rapist. It's a rare opportunity to live through the version of the fantasy that doesn't appeal to my butch side (which I still love), that makes me embrace being female and even feminine without resentment. It avoids most of the traps of the victim who fights back but in patronizing and debasing ways, or who responds with seriously fucked up methods (which I sometimes appreciate), undignified methods, things like extortion and taking advantage of stereotypes and filling so many others. Or maybe I'm forgiving too much to convince myself it's OK to like this pulpy, ridiculous film. Or maybe I'm still annoyed that the woman in I Spit on Your Grave felt the need to have consensual sex with her rapists before killing them in an uncomfortably exploitative way.

So those are my ranting thoughts and one of my odd fantasies that I felt the need to share with only a little embarrassment. I liked Sucker Punch. I recommend it with a shit-load of reservations. You could listen to my recommendation if you want. But I DID think Machete was awesome, so I probably don't know what the fuck I'm talking about.