For your aural pleasure: 3

Posted by mouthyb | Posted in | Posted on 2:16 PM

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I find this song incredibly catchy.

A form of comfort

Posted by mouthyb | Posted in , | Posted on 1:14 PM

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This is likely to stop as I get further up in math courses: yesterday, as I was slogging through a 39 page lab report, Open Office crashed and I lost several hours of data analysis. Swearing like the blue collar worker I used to be, I decided I needed a break and walked back to my bedroom (it was that or throw something).

On the floor next to my bed was a Calculus book, and on one of the dressers is a book on differential equations and a book on discrete math. My first urge was to pick up the Calc or differential equations book and read it for comfort.

I've noticed a change in my thinking over the last semester; at the beginning of the semester, math caused me considerable anxiety. Tests still make my heart hammer a bit in my chest, and my statistics teacher isn't helping with his running commentary on how dumb we are, but I find that the part of me which loves to problem solve finds solving problems in my home work very satisfying. I find that I am starting to get some fluidity and fluency in the language that is math, and it is very enjoyable.

It also appeals to me because it promises defineable solutions and a framework for understanding problems which has a more clear, previously defined scope. I realize that this will not be true of later math, but there's something deeply satisfying about dealing with a system with more clearly defined methodology. There is a correct answer, for the most part, which is derived from a system which has limits.

I have some sympathy with the desire to avoid messier systems; many of the modes for analysis I learned in the Humanities had considerably less rigidly defined terms and a great deal less certainty and potentially inarguable clarity. In order to work in the Humanities, you have to have great tolerance for uncertainty and equivocation, something which, as of yet, has not been a part of the math I've learned. I am finding math comforting because I can finish a problem, for a sense of accomplishment, and be done with it.

However, there is something in the Humanities which math has not yet shown me, and that is the ability to make some sense out of chaotic systems. Many of the men I know who study math (in my university) have little to no tolerance for chaotic systems, and attempt to apply the rigidly defined principles of math to chaotic social systems, get angry that they can't make much sense out of these systems and conclude that these systems are useless, worthless, impossible to understand and stupid to boot (or some mix of the above). They will sometimes generalize to people who study those systems.

Sometimes they'll be right; I've seen some pretty silly things in the Humanities, and not self-consciously silly, either. But the urge to write the whole thing off becomes a problem. It causes some people who study math to write off the greater part of humanity, and/or to write off some of the systematic critiques which are a product of the Humanities, like feminism.

Feminism is a relatively new discipline in colleges, but not a totally new one; it's a twentieth century discipline in the academy, but over two thousand years old in practice (there were female teachers of math and rhetoric in Ancient Greece, who commented on the relationship between their culture and the lives of women.) The theory for it changes, the same way society changes, but has a fairly robust body of associated social critique and experiments, of which the stereotype threat experiments are an example.

And it is, in some ways, a comforting discipline, because it offers a theoretical stance which validates the experience of women, and later people of color and people who are not straight. It's worth remembering, for other people who find math comforting, that part of the urge to simplify is affected by social conventions about who is talented at math, who can understand math, and the (justifiably) social capital given the discipline and persons able to study the discipline.

Sometimes, hiding in that comfort with a well-defined discipline, is a comfort that people who are good at math are better than everyone else, and just coincidentally happen to be mostly male, because men are better than women at this skill set which makes some people better than others.

Rather than unthinkingly reason that way, I often want to say to men who think like this that they deny the comfort they enjoy to others, and make a relatively small pool of persons that much smaller. Extrapolation outside the borders of the definitions for the discipline, something which persons who know those definitions should definitely know better than to do, only artificially narrows potential set constituents.

And I want to say, "Don't deny me this comfort, for the sake of amplifying your own."

Hells, yeah

Posted by mouthyb | Posted in | Posted on 11:14 PM

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See this? The vengeance-driven, bitter corners of my heart are warmed and happy.

Sue the shit out of them, Massachusetts. Get all kinds of punative.

Food: I made a yummy

Posted by mouthyb | Posted in | Posted on 7:35 PM

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Today, I made a treacle tart. I haven't had one of those since I was in England last, as a child. I added ginger and vanilla to the original recipe. It came out a bit chewy; next time, I'll have to remember to add cream.

There's something about the flavor of ginger, treacle, lemon and vanilla which tastes like warmth and good memories; as it snows outside where I am, I'm enjoying the lingering spicy smell of the tart.

Gingrich is an asshole

Posted by mouthyb | Posted in , , | Posted on 2:01 PM

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So I just covered this in the history/theory course I'm teaching: child labor laws, which are a product of the late 19th and early 20th century Child-Saver movement, are the only thing standing between children and conditions like this.


These are Breaker Boys, in a mine in Virginia. The photo was taken in 1911. Their job was to sit on these little wooden seats for 10-12 hour shifts and pick refuse from the coal hurting underneath their bare feet. Coal has sharp edges, and it was not unusual for them to get cuts, which became infected because of the coal dust in the air. In order to prevent infection, cuts were cauterized with hot iron, and large cuts were treated with amputation. The coal dust is incredibly carcinogenic, and they were issued no safety gear (but then, OSHA did not exist.) The ages of Breaker Boys ranged from 6 to teens, but the littler boys were the best suited for that tiny space. Laws and custom of the time allowed the overseer to beat the boys if he felt they were doing a bad job.

Breaker Boys weren't the only minors working at the mines. The next picture is of a Greaser.


His name is Shorpy. His job was to jump out between carts on the rails and grease the wheels to keep the cart moving. As you can imagine, it was dangerous. As was being a Breaker Boy. Children ended up in those jobs because they are cheap, easy to exploit labor, and their families needed their income. The actual counts for mortality among children in these jobs are impossible to get; a standardized system for gathering that data did not exist, and neither did clear, national documentation of citizenship and/or birth. I'm going to assume it was not insignificant.

The Child Savers (early sociologists, middle class moral crusaders and some religious figures) responded to the plight of these children a number of ways, including enacting mandatory education laws (with the exception of farm workers; they still have much relaxed laws governing their safety, time spent in school and time spent working), limits to the number of hours which can be worked, and some rules governing how children can be treated on the job. Many of these laws are still used to govern the lives of child workers, because children remain a population which is easy to exploit (along with illegal immigrants, for instance).

Because I know the history of these laws, why they were enacted and the conditions which existed when they were enacted, I find this particularly abhorrent. To argue that the children of the poor don't learn to work and that the laws protecting children only get in the way of them learning to work is about the stupidest fucking thing I can imagine, both because it is ahistorical and because the children of the poor continue to be both a working population (see discussions of urban shadow economies for how children work, even though they are not officially employed; economists estimate, in the black market alone, 1.8 billion people are employed.)

Newt's statements are part of a dangerously ahistorical, disingenuous (I tend to believe he's seen accurate history at some point, if he went to college) and frankly dangerous line of reasoning, and one which is patently false.

Newt is an asshole because he likely knows this, knows what happens to the children of the poor and the children of immigrants trafficked in for cheap, exploitable labor, when they labor, and does not care. The link under 'poor' in the previous sentence discusses the actual value given their lives by companies.

And yes, there is one.

Pictures sourced here.

Without equilibrium: studying societies

Posted by mouthyb | Posted in | Posted on 11:53 AM

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One of the concepts which is really challenging in the newer social sciences is the idea that societies don't have a single equilibrium point which can be found and studied as the 'real' reason people in that society do what they do. There have been a few thinkers in the history of the social sciences who were inclined to this point of view, but they were in the minority and their work was roundly criticized for being too complicated to test.

I'm going to weigh in as someone who believes multiple points of temporary equilibrium which indicate structures but don't dictate single paths of behavior or motivations. I say this because the actors in the system are thoughtful (able to evaluate, even if they choose not to or use a demonstrably false schema) and because I assume every system has competing influences on actor behavior.

As an example, the choice to go to a particular place for coffee, when there are several proximate places which sell coffee drinks at around the same prices. The college which employs and educates me has roughly five different places to get coffee within a block of or on the university campus. I typically pick the closest place to my department, a Starbucks, out of sheer convenience, but convenience is not always my rationale. In fact, there are a handful of rationale I use to pick a place to get coffee: convenience, the company and kind of conversation I'm planning on having (the need for more privacy means I have to get off campus), what kind of coffee I want to drink, whether I want to people-watch, what sort of background music I'm willing to listen to (I hate Christmas music), whether they're having a sale, what sort of food I want to eat (if I'm eating and having coffee) and whether or not I want to be alone (if I use an on-campus coffee place or the places closest to the university, I will run into someone I know who wants to talk roughly 80% of the time.) At any point where I make a decision, any of these factors could emerge as a deciding factor in where I buy coffee.

In practice, convenience tends to be the deciding factor, but it's augmented by those other factors. Because convenience tends to be the deciding factor, I might start an analysis at convenience, but it is not a consistent rationale for my actions outside getting coffee; I walk to work, which is highly inconvenient, as is the course schedule I'm taking and the amount of time I've volunteered to help others with study and/or tasks. For reasons like this, analyzing human behavior is always time and location constrained. Much of the generalization in the social sciences about all humans in all circumstances completely ignores the multidimensional nature of decision-making from the point of view of actors, and typically does so from the point of view of the actor/theorist looking.down from a position they suppose to be able to allow them to see everything clearly.

Which is one of the other problems with studying societies: observation changes the nature of events. If a theorist is willing to start analyzing society by assuming that the material fact of their observation has no effect on the thing they observe (for primary data sourcing or for how that data is filtered; ideas are contagious), they are highly unlikely to query the nature of the assumptions they make. This tends, in my readings, to result in the arbitrary disposal of some observations as 'unimportant,' based on the coding of the theorist, even though those observations may be influential.

The other problem is that people will change their behavior when they know they are observed. Coupled with the notorious problem isolating human behavior enough to rigorously observe it, and trying to figure out how to observe meaningfully and interpret meaningfully contains a great deal of assumption about the entire process.

Honestly, I prefer assuming that the process is dynamic and that a theorist should start with observation and the awareness that they influence the system they observe. It seems to me a more reasonable approach.

For your aural pleasure: 2

Posted by mouthyb | Posted in | Posted on 12:39 AM

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Today in encouraging people

Posted by mouthyb | Posted in | Posted on 12:35 AM

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Sometimes, seemingly out of nowhere, people seem to come into my life who are hurting, en masse. Sometimes I can do nothing about it; I can't spare the time or emotional energy to deal with it. For some reason, right now, I seem to have that energy, I suspect because I'm procrastinating doing more data analysis on dead children.

I spent two hours today trying to convince a colleague to stay in college. He's burnt out the way poor kids get burnt out by the death-march that is trying to climb out of poverty via education, when you don't have the resources to help you climb and (typically) no one to talk to about it: you have nothing in common with family and friends, they can't help you pay for anything, and you know exactly how easy it is to fail and fade into obscurity like everyone you know, with all the health and economic problems which go with that fade.

It's all many people can do to get by, and in some ways being in graduate school insulates you from parts of that struggle by offering you hope. But that hope is poisonous; it takes you away from everything you know and everyone who loves you. He, like many of us, is driven to help, and depressed by how little he can help.

And the faculty in the department have not helped. Several have gone out of their way to give grim, depressing accounts of the job market, telling us they don't know if we'll find employment. I showed him the latest stats from the Dept of Labor Statistics and the American Sociological Association, which put unemployment in our field at one percent. I could see the weight rolling off him.

As we parted, he said, "I like talking to you. I always feel so hopeful when we're done."

I smiled. Two minutes later, someone I know contacted me on messenger who needed to talk about her legal woes.

I'm tired; really, really tired. But grateful that the people around me believe I am worth trusting. I can encourage my colleague because I know his situation. I know all about that burnout, the fear that no matter what you do, you won't be able to climb out, and that the debt you have incurred trying to climb will make things so much worse.

I can talk to my friend about these legal woes because she helped me. To encourage, I listened. It's amazing how much of encouragement is listening, asking questions, repeating back and reminding.

Or in the case of my colleague, contesting some bullshit with facts.