Category Archives: Rants

Why New Math Fads Are Bad For Math Education

An insightful remark by one of my Twitter friends today sparked some thoughts about mathematics education — specifically, my thoughts about the new fads in math education that seem to crop up all the time in schools across the U.S. like ever-more creative varieties of fungus.  As someone who loudly and often condemns many of these new “methods” for teaching math, it turned out I had far too many thoughts for Twitter.

I’ve worked for many, many years as a private math tutor, at varying degrees of full/part time (right now I don’t do it for my main job, but maintain a few students because it’s fun and I like teaching and I like the company I work for).  My students have crossed a wide variety of middle and high schools, with a wide variety of curriculum tracks (from off-beat “hippie”-ish private schools to standard state curricula to college, and including a range of clients from students for whom math was not their forte to students who were brilliant and wanted more enrichment to students who were smart but lazy).  Pretty much the only selection bias my students have had in common is that they and their families tend to be in a financial bracket to hire me and care enough about academics to do so, which has slanted the demographic I work with to be much more likely to attend schools that purportedly each really try to have a good math curriculum.

And so many of them . . . well, don’t.

Education is a hard thing.  I realize that.  It’s really, really hard to figure out the optimal way of teaching a lot of disparate students with a lot of disparate skill levels some knowledge they don’t necessarily all want to learn.  Teachers are often underfunded, with too many students, and constrained by administrations or standardized tests that work against them.  I’m willing to cut teachers a lot of slack for not batting 1000 for all students at all times.  But what really gets my goat when it comes to mathematics education is what I call “fad math.”

Fad math is my students whose school thought the best way to teach them geometry was to put them in small groups and say, “figure it out” with no additional guidance (this is based on the textbook, by the way, which does not teach at all).  Fad math is my students whose curriculum jumps from topic to topic with no discernible connective tissue, and then assigns a mountain of problems . . . maybe three each on each of the wildly different topics.  Fad math is the private school that decided real-world math was more important than algebra and calculus, so taught taxes and mortgage amortization instead.  I could go on.  (And on.)

I get the motivations behind trying out these fads.  Mathematics teaching in this country is (in many ways correctly) perceived as broken, and people are looking for the magic formula, the Holy Grail, the thing that will work.  For example, in the first example above, I get that the idea was probably originally that more “figuring out” should happen in math teaching and less rote memorization; I support that in principle, but when we’ve reached a point at which any actual teaching has disappeared and students are basically being required to re-derive modern mathematics from scratch (with the end result that most of them just learn nothing), we’ve gone way, way, way, way too far.  The second curriculum I mentioned comes from the fear that students lose material when they study one topic in bulk rather than repeating the skills over a period of time, which, again, is a problem worth addressing — but gutting students’ ability to gain an in-depth understanding of any material is not the way to do that.  And while I applaud schools looking to teach students about real-world math like taxes and mortgages — again, a good idea! — lacking a more traditional math base completely derailed students who moved or transferred high schools and also snapped off the math foundation needed for any students who wanted to go on to a STEM field in college, including fields like pre-med and economics.

Fad math, in my view, seems more about people being proud of a shiny new idea — “this idea will work for pumping math knowledge into kids’ heads!” rather than being concerned with teaching, which is, in my opinion, where people should be concerned.  My best math teachers have never used any gimmicks, ever.  But they were really, really, really good at explaining things in a way that made sense.

(And that’s the kind of teacher I try to be, too: one who explains things in a way that makes the lightbulb go off and the student say, “Oh!  So then that’s why this happens!”  It’s amazing to be able to help someone reach that place.)

For what it’s worth, here are the main problems I see with math teaching in this country from working with my students:

  1. Math taught as a “how to” instead of a “why.”  If all you’re doing is memorizing that this number should go here and that one should go there when you see a certain symbol, then that’s . . . . well, almost useless.  If all students are doing is following a flow chart by rote memorization, there’s no mathematical understanding going on.  Students have to know why a thing makes sense in order for it to, well, make sense.  Teachers need to teach the why instead of just giving a recipe for the how.[1]
  2. No connection between mathematical ideas.  Math is ridiculously interconnected.  Every topic is related to every other.  And when you help a student relate a new topic back to an old one, it enhances understanding of the old one while giving the student an intuitive basis for the new one.  Trying to learn math concepts in isolation is a ridiculous proposition, and yet, that’s what students are so often asked to do.
  3. A horrifying number of high school math teachers don’t seem to have a deep understanding of the concepts they’re  teaching.  I can’t count the number of times my students have come to me confused about explanations their teachers gave them — explanations that were off-base, muddled, or just plain wrong.[2]  The cynic in me bets that this is because the teachers learned math by learning “how” as well, so when students ask the “why,” the teachers might genuinely not know.  (This is not, of course, true of all math teachers, and is perhaps not even true of most math teachers — I don’t know — but that it is true of a noticeable number concerns me.)
  4. A smaller number (but even more horrifying in its existence) of math teachers either just don’t care or are actively derogatory towards students.  This includes everything from being hostile toward giving extra help to sexism toward female students.
  5. Math teachers also have roadblocks thrown in their path from every conceivable corner.  Class sizes are too large, stripping away teachers’ abilities to tailor explanations to individual needs or to give a struggling student the extra help that might make the difference.  Standardized tests and state-imposed math standards often do more harm than good, as they pressure teachers into hammering the “how” into students hard enough that they’ll get the right answers without ever addressing the “why.”  Teachers are underpaid, overworked, and often struggle against turgidly bureaucratic administrations.  And in math specifically, the sort of “fad math” I’ve referred to here is often forced on teachers from the outside, hobbling their ability to actually teach.

I don’t mean to sound hostile toward teachers.  Like I said, I’ve had some brilliant math teachers in my time — in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever had a single math teacher who was bad at what she or he did.  And god, look, that’s probably a huge part of the reason I fell in love with math and went into it: because of my teachers.  Two of my high school teachers in particular (one in my high school and one in a summer program) are probably directly responsible for me going to MIT and majoring in math.

But this just reinforces my point: Good teachers are so freakin’ important.  Not a single one of my math teachers ever used a gimmick or a fad or some krazy new-fangled new idea for gettin’ math into the heads of them dumb-dumb math-hatin’ students.  They used blackboards, white boards, or transparencies.  And — and now that I’m thinking about it, this was true without exception — they pretty much spent the entirety of each class period writing and talking and explaining things.  And it worked.  I mean, I know it might seem like, okay, this is me talking, and I’m smart and good at math so it worked for me — but no, it worked in general.  I still use visualizations taught to me by my geometry teacher 17 years ago with my students and they find them incredibly helpful.  My calculus teacher was exceedingly proud of the fact that every single one of her AP students would consistently get 4’s and 5’s on the AP exams.  Every single one, in a public school.  (A good public school, but still.)  And she didn’t teach to the test; she just taught well (and was incredibly beloved by students, not just me).

Yeah, I was very lucky.  But I’d like all students to be able to be that lucky.  To be as well-taught and inspired as I was.  To feel that they’re not just passing tests, but that they truly understand what they’re learning.

There’s a lot that is hard about education reform.  A lot.  But for Pete’s sake, one thing we can do is stop it with the fad math.  Stop dropping shiny new assembly line algorithms across school curricula in the hope that they’ll press out perfect little cubes of students who know how to factor properly.  You can’t teach math by plugging a student into a flow chart.

You teach math by teaching it.  There are many, many excellent ways and methods of teaching, of course, and I’m not saying discussing those isn’t valuable — I could probably write a book on all the different ways I’ve discovered to explain calculus.  But so many of these math fads stop valuing teaching entirely.  And that makes our education system, one in which there are already so many things to fix, just that much more broken.

  1. There’s this commercial for an online tutoring service that drives me bonkers.  It’s meant to show a good math tutor.  The student calls up the tutor and says, “How do you find the area of a triangle?” The tutor says something like, “Well, [Student’s Name], the area of a triangle is one-half base times height!  So you take the base, and multiply it by one-half and by the height!” and she writes A = 1/2 bh.  And the two of them smile at each other like this is just peaches.  And I scream every time I see this commercial, because teaching a kid to memorize a formula, that’s not teaching math.  In fact, area of a triangle is one of the easiest things to explain — A = bh is quite intuitive for a rectangle (and if not can easily be demonstrated via a visualization of 1×1 boxes), and then you can show the area of a triangle as being half the area of a rectangle by drawing a rectangle and slicing it down the diagonal to make two triangles, so for a triangle A = 1/2 bh.  (Slightly more rigorously, you can teach area of a parallelogram in between those, but “triangle as half a rectangle” is actually easier for most students when intuiting the reason for the formula, and the other connections can be drawn later.)  In any case, this commercial is everything I hate about bad math education in one thirty-second soundbite.
  2. In most cases it’s pretty easy for me to tell when it’s just the student who’s confused versus when the teacher was actually confusing.

Ebook Formatting Woes: Remember Trying to Be Compatible With Netscape? Yeah, That.

My book is done and has been going out for review this week (if anyone wants an eARC, let me know!), which means I am finally through the formatting process.  And, let’s see — do I still have any hair left?

Not because it was all that bad, mind you.  On the whole, the formatting process was reasonably painless — I used Guido’s excellent guide, and I have good knowledge of HTML and CSS already, which made it much easier.  The reason it was so frustrating was that it ended up literally impossible to get perfect thanks to the differences between devices, and for a diehard perfectionist, this kills me.

I very quickly realized the best strategy was to format as simply as possible and make even the least bit of fanciness something that would degrade gracefully if it didn’t work.  But dear Lord, does anyone remember trying to design websites that would still be compatible with IE4 and Netscape Navigator?  I started designing in the late 90’s, when there was still a concern people would be using those godawful dinosaurs, and I remember wanting to put my head through a wall whenever there was that one thing that would break spectacularly in Netscape.  And even the latest IEs were only half standards compliant, so ninety percent of the time I would design a clean page that would open beautifully in Opera and Mozilla (yes, Mozilla — this was before Firefox, I’m old!) and then it would look like a Picasso in IE and I would have to write “if IE” workarounds for half the code because Microsoft couldn’t freakin’ design a browser that bothered to comply with the standards.

Coding for ebooks is almost worse, because as far as I’ve been able to find, there aren’t really workarounds or “if Sony . . .” clauses I can add if I want things to look a certain way.  It’s a good thing I’m down with simplicity anyway, and “degrading gracefully” became my mantra of the month.  But there were two things that had no good solution, and I am still incredibly bugged by them.

No Love for Paul Erdős

My book has a passing reference to the Hungarian mathematician Erdős, who has a double acute accent over the o in his name.  This has an HTML entity — ő — but it’s not a named one, and it broke for at least one of my formatting checkers.

What to do!  I appealed to Absolute Write, Twitter, and my RL friends.  Do I Anglicize his name?  (Ick!)  Do I use a common misspelling, such as the umlaut over the o?  (Also ick!)  Do I leave the character and accept that it will break for some people?  But — but — but my readers!

I ended up leaving the name spelled correctly — in my informal poll, about half the people thought I should Anglicize it (possibly with a note in an afterward) and about half the people said I should leave it, but nobody had terribly strong feelings and everyone agreed it was a hard choice.  What decided me was that if I had an ereader that didn’t work on the character, I’d still prefer the author spell it correctly, even if it broke for me.

But the fact remains that I have some readers that will see “Erd?s” in that paragraph.  And that freakin’ sucks.

Orphaned Em Dash: My Worst Nightmare

Amazon Kindle has a problem with orphaning em dashes that are at the end of a line.  In other words, if the line falls on the page in an unlucky way, “What do you mean, he’s —” would become

“What do you mean, he’s

—”

GAH.

(I don’t know enough to consider myself a typography geek, but maybe I would qualify as an armchair typography geek, and this makes me go into spasms.)

And there’s no solution!  The worst part is, HTML has a solution to this, a character you can put between the em dash and the word in all of those instances to make sure no break happens, but Kindle doesn’t recognize it.  And I sure as heck wasn’t going to put it in and risk having it pop up as a question mark on some devices.

Aaaaaand of course, in my book, I have one paragraph which, in the default font size on Kindle, orphans an em dash at the end of it.  Motherfucker.

(My friend laughed at me.  “Is this your worst nightmare?” she said.  “YES!” I cried.)

Now, I could alter the text of that paragraph, but that doesn’t solve the underlying problem — in other font sizes on other devices, this orphaning will still happen.  And I’m really stubborn about changing the text of a book to make the formatting work better.  That doesn’t seem right to me.

So in the Kindle default font size, there’s an orphaned em dash.  And I sit here, grinding my teeth, and can do nothing.

Kills me, folks.  Kills me.

The Tiresome Fringe of SFWA: the Gift That Keeps On Giving

I was offline most of today because I was working on a book.  (Well, there was also a six-mile hike in there, but I consider that productive also.)  So I didn’t see the shit hit the fan until tonight.

And you know what?  I’m tired.  I’m really fucking tired of this.  I’d much rather be working on my fucking book.  My book has gunfights in it.  And explosions.  And complexity theory.  COMPLEXITY THEORY, PEOPLE.  I don’t want to be blogging about some fucking asshole who wrote some fucking petition claiming that SFWA deciding to have more editorial oversight over the professional publication of the organization after massive member complaints last year is somehow “censorship.”

That’s so fucked-up I don’t know where to begin.  You know what, maybe I won’t.  Maybe I’ll just direct you to Natalie Luhrs’ excellently articulate rundown of the situation (it includes links to the full text of the petitions, both the original horribly-racist-and-sexist one and the we’re-going-to-be-slightly-less-inflammatory-here-even-though-we-claim-to-be-against-any-editorial-oversight one, and many of the comments are also well worth reading).  Or Rachael Acks’ brilliantly incisive points about how SFWA is supposed to be a professional organization. And then I’ll go back to writing my book, because there’s only so much of this I can take.

But no, there’s one other thing I want to say.  What should be angering me here is the same old tired racist/sexist bullshit, these people’s insistence, their fucking entitlement, about their “right” to maintain a toxic environment within a professional organization.  But I’m just too tired.  Can’t muster the ire.

Instead, you know what’s really sticking in my craw on this one?  How fucking stupid the petition is.

It’s an illogical, fallacious, badly-written disgrace.

Look, I’m not even talking about the fact that I disagree with it.  There’s plenty of nuance to be had in conversations about free discourse and editorial direction.  I’ve had many a civilized debate about that sort of thing, and sometimes I disagreed, vehemently, with the people I was talking to, but they still made sense, they thought things through, they articulated arguments that made me have to think about what they said.  There’s value in that sort of debate.  A lot of value.

What makes me really disgruntled tonight is that I see the names of people who have signed onto this mess of a petition and I say, “Really?  REALLY?  You thought it was a good idea to put your name on that?  That godawful excuse for an argument that makes no fucking sense?

We’re science fiction and fantasy!  We’re the people who try to build worlds so complicated and consistent that they violate Goedel!  We’re the people who interpolate and extrapolate, into the heart of the human condition and into the future, who revel in science and logic and rational thought!  Aren’t we supposed to have some understanding of logic?  Of what a fallacy looks like?  Couldn’t one of those signatories have looked at this stupid-ass excuse for an opinion, found the kernel of truth he or she agreed with, and written something that wouldn’t have gotten a failing grade in a high school English class?[1]  You’re supposed to be writers, for crying out loud!

Disagree with me all you want.  But for god’s sake, at least have the courtesy to do it intelligently.

(p.s. — I’ve updated the timeline with this.  Why oh why are there still things happening to update it with?)

  1. To be fair, I can’t really find anything in the petition’s arguments that isn’t logically fallacious, so maybe the reason nobody wrote a better one is that it’s not possible.  But that should really tell you guys something, shouldn’t it . . .

A Call to Stop Politicizing People’s Existence

There’s been this thing happening online the past few days.

First, Alex Dally MacFarlane wrote a column for Tor exhorting SFF authors to stop thinking of binary gender as the default.

Then this happened.

There’s been a lot of chatter all over the Internets since, of course.  Too much for me to address, even if I wanted to engage with it all.  But there’s one thing I do want to speak up about: I’m downright sick of people labeling the inclusion of PoC, women, genderqueer, or other QUILTBAG people as a political agenda.  As leftist.  As “liberal.”

People with non-binary genders aren’t an agenda. They exist. They’re reality. Same with people of nonwhite races and non-Western ethnicities and queer orientations. I don’t consider my existence to be part of some “liberal agenda”—in fact, my personal political ideology might be considered quite conservative in many respects, but my existence is neither conservative nor liberal.  And neither is anyone else’s.

(Goddammit, now I’m tempted to write some excessively message-heavy CONSERVATIVE science fiction in which all the characters are gun nut libertarians but also just happen to be non-binary gendered or PoC or women or queer, because, dammit, we exist.)

Like MacFarlane, I want an end to defaults. I want to read fiction where diversity is just part of the landscape, where there doesn’t have to be a “story reason,” where people just are different races/gender identities/orientations because people in the real world just are. We don’t have “plot reasons” in our lives that make us nonwhite or QUILTBAG or whatever—why is it somehow a “liberal agenda” if we argue that this reality should be reflected in fiction?

I don’t see why advocating a lack of default is so controversial.  After all, fiction doesn’t even come close to reflecting reality—come talk to me about “political agendas” when half of SFF main characters are women and we regularly get 60-percent-Asian casts in humanity-to-the-stars space operas.  Come talk to me when I see as many gay people in media as I interact with in daily life.

And yeah, I think it would be great if science fiction worldbuilding didn’t automatically assume two genders, if authors made the decision to invent binary-gender worlds rather than defaulting to them.  If authors regularly considered making characters genderqueer for no reason at all even if they ultimately decided against it, in the same way they might consider what hair color to choose.

SFF has always identified itself as a genre where anything is possible.  Yet as a genre, we so often automatically fall into assuming narrow representations of humanity before we even begin writing.  I would like to see SFF be a proper superset: to encompass all of humanity, and go beyond.

But first, for the love of God, can we stop calling the existence of actual, real-life people a political agenda?

Hard Scifi: I Do Not Think That Means What You Think It Means.

There are certain people out there who seem to be misusing the term “hard science fiction.”

In preparing to write this entry, I was actually shocked that the definitions I found for “hard science fiction” completely agreed with me on what it should mean: namely, that the fictional science included is made as realistic, as explicable, as possible.  Hard scifi seeks to extrapolate from real scientific knowledge, to present future tech that seems plausible given the current state of our real-world understanding . . . it strives both to work within known science, and to extend it.

The flip side of this is “soft scifi,” which operates on handwavium.  Spaceships exist because they do; lightspeed travel is possible because it is; the state of AI constantly contradicts itself and the technology can spawn new tentacles as the plot demands without any adherence to known natural law.

This is, of course, a continuum: many types of fiction fall between the two extremes, and people can debate endlessly whether something should be categorized as “hard” or “soft.”

These are the same definitions I have always taken for granted, until recently.  Still, I was surprised when my Google search agreed with me entirely . . . because it seems that every time someone insinuates that women can’t or don’t write hard scifi, this is not the definition those people are using.  Which leads me to: What the hell, people.

Come on.  If we accept that hard science fiction has only to do with realism and rigor, then a lot of what people say about it is just. plain. wrong!  Let’s look at this rationally for a moment, shall we?  Working from such a definition, we get:

What Hard Scifi Isn’t

  1. Hard science fiction does not preclude romance.
    Why on earth would it?  The level of romance in a story versus how well the technology is explained are two entirely orthogonal concepts.  Why would one in any way impact the other?  Why do some people set up romances as the opposite of hard scifi, when it is entirely possible to have a romance plot be central to a world of completely consistent technology and also entirely possible to have a handwaved, contradictory universe with no romance plot at all?  If two characters fall in love over a background of solving Navier-Stokes, with completely realistic fluid dynamics, you bet your ass that’s hard scifi.
  2. Nor does hard science fiction preclude a concentration on human relationships.
    In fact, I would argue that writing harder, more realistic science fiction should encourage more concentration on the relationships between characters.  What is something that anyone with even a cursory knowledge of scientific progress continually complains about with regard to science fiction?  That it completely ignores the massive collaboration present in real scientific advancement!  The “lone genius” is a common trope of fiction, but how often does this happen in reality?  The world of science is full of relationships—and not just cursory relationships, but loves, rivalries, scandals, heartbreak . . . hey, one of my favorite books as a child[1] was a book about the drama that has surrounded the history of mathematics.  The Axiom of Choice and the Well-Ordering Principle, Newton versus Leibniz, the cult of Pythagoras, the strong friendships and collaborations of Hardy and Littlewood or Lovelace and Babbage . . . mathematicians are passionate people, and the interpersonal stories of mathematics alone would fill a library.  Nor are the other sciences exempt.  A novel featuring scientists who lack any interpersonal interaction, any irrationality or yearning or vast emotion, feels . . . well, unrealistic.
  3. Hard science fiction is not limited to the hard sciences.
    There seems to be some assumption that hard science fiction must be the purview of those who are experts in physics.  Why?  Why don’t the other sciences get any love?  Hey, one of my favorite science fiction stories ever is Isaac Asimov’s tale of a goose who literally lays golden eggs—Asimov, being a biochemist, provided a very well-thought-out accounting of the phenomenon, and in my opinion, this is one of the hardest science fiction stories of all time.  Why do we not assume that hard scifi can encompass all sciences, including chemistry, biology, even sociology?  Heck, I’m dead serious when I say I think the argument could certainly be made that The Handmaid’s Tale is rock-hard science fiction (with apologies to Margaret Atwood[2]).
  4. Hard science fiction does not and should not equate with space travel, military scifi, plentiful technology, or even a plot driven by the science fictional elements. It’s the realism of the science that matters, not the flashiness.
    When most people think “hard scifi,” they probably picture something vaguely like Star Trek—except that Star Trek is one of the squishiest science fiction premises in the galaxy.  It’s practically a fluid.  Yet I’m suspicious that’s what people tend to picture, rather than, y’know, The Handmaid’s Tale.
  5. Hard science fiction is not inherently smarter, more sophisticated, more well-written, or in any way better than soft science fiction.
    Don’t believe me?  Look at some of the classics of science fiction.  H.G. Wells is about as soft as it gets, and I defy anybody to say that made his works less valuable to the genre.  Douglas Adams is another name no one would dare to defile, and the hardest thing about his science fiction is keeping all the contradictory time travel straight.  Why on earth would any writers (read: female writers) get discounted because their work doesn’t scratch diamond?  In other words, why can men be respected for writing soft science fiction, but when the author is female, the observation of what sub-genre her work falls into suddenly becomes a criticism, something to belittle her with?

I should add that of course women can write hard science fiction with no romance and a heavy emphasis on flashy space-faring physics if they want to.  Duh.  But I’m sick of the above insinuations about the sub-genre, because they do strike me as a quite blatant attempt to draw boundaries that will exclude or put down as many female writers as possible.[3]

  1. I was an odd child.
  2. For those who don’t know, Atwood has in the past resisted the characterization of the book as science fiction at all.
  3. I’m not actually sure modern SF by women includes more relationships/romance/etc. than modern SF by men—anecdotally, I’m suspicious that it’s more older SF that eschews character-driven tales, and not male-authored SF, since all the modern SF I’ve read by men seems to include relationships as well.  But because the playing field in prior decades was so much more vastly unequal than it is today, drawing the lines to exclude trends in modern SF would also result in disproportionately excluding female writers . . . as I expect the people doing it intend.

The Reason Escapist Time Travel Doesn’t Star Women Is That We Haven’t Written It Yet

In Anna Smith’s recent article for The Guardian, she asks, “Why Can’t Women Time Travel?” and points out the paucity of female protagonists in time travel capers.  From Back to the Future to The Time Traveler’s Wife, the time travel sub-genre of science fiction has been one trail-blazed mainly by men.

Charlie Stross then wrote a response, the thesis of which is that because of the privilege necessary to be a “time tourist,” the time travel sub-genre is inherently sexist:

The time travel story is a tale of tourism in the classical sense: an activity of the privileged, making spectacle of the past (and, occasionally, the Wellsian future). And women make poor time travelers because in the foreign countries of the past they lack the agency conferred by privilege.

(bold in the original)

Stross’s piece goes on to make the following points:

  1. People seek out “time tourism” media for escapism, and women make poor protagonists for these tales because there would be too much sexism in the past for them (and therefore the reader who is identifying with them) to have a good time;
  2. When one writes a time travel book (or film), one MUST address the sexism in past times, which necessarily makes for “grim reading” if one insists on having a female protagonist;
  3. A male time traveler can happily explore all of time as an epic adventure, whereas a female time traveler is doomed unless she’s packing futuristic weaponry (or is somehow otherwise conferred extra power).  And that destroys the reader’s ability to relate to her.

I wholeheartedly reject every one of these notions.

For the record, I think Stross was trying to make a very good point about our romanticization of the past and the privilege inherent in it.  His piece isn’t meant to be sexist—it’s meant to critique the sexism he sees in a particular genre.  My understanding of what he wrote is that he believes that the strictures of the “time tourism” sub-genre mean it must be led by men, and that the entire existence of the sub-genre is a problematic thing.

As someone who rather adores “time tourism” stories, as he calls them, and would like to see more women star in them, I quite disagree.

Sure, I certainly see Stross’s point that romanticization of the past is in inherent in escapist time travel.  And I would be willing to entertain the consideration that this is both endemic and problematic to the sub-genre—is escapist entertainment a social ill when it puts a shiny veneer across humanity’s history?  Personally, I would argue that it is no more inherently problematic than being entertained by the violence in a cheesy action movie—in both cases, a broader social consciousness of the differences with the real world is important, but I would not condemn such entertainment as (necessarily) socially irresponsible.  I do, however, acknowledge that these questions make for interesting academic discussion.

But if we accept the possible entertainment value of historical romanticization, it makes utterly no sense to me why this means the genre must be sexist!  That would be like saying cheesy action movies are violence for entertainment and therefore must have poor female representation—the existence of violence in action films is an entirely separate criticism from the propensity of the genre to have male leads, and should not be conflated in criticism.  After all, there are plenty of women who enjoy escapist action, and plenty of people of all genders who will pay good money to see cheesy action movies starring women bustin’ things up.  The answer to the male domination among action heroes is to make more buddy action comedies starring women, not to condemn the entire genre as a sexist lost cause.

Similarly, the criticism that “time tourism” presents a romanticized notion of history may be a valid one, but in no way means that the protagonists must all be men.  And I very much dislike the argument, because it dismisses the idea that women can perfectly well star in escapist time travel, just as women can perfectly well star in terrible action flicks.  In fact, just as feminism will make a great stride when women are allowed to be any type of character, I think sexism will take a great hit when women are allowed to be leads in any genre, no matter how cheesy, terribly-written, or historically inaccurate.

And it’s not hard to do this.  To further the comparison, I would say the larger-than-life qualities of action films makes it easier to make the leads any gender, and similarly, I think the very romanticization Stross objects to would allow time travel stories to be happily gender-equal.  The stumbling block isn’t that the sub-genre has condemned itself to sexism: it’s instead the same pervasive institutional sexism that defaults all our SFF protagonists toward the male end of the spectrum, and it has a very easy solution, namely, we need to write more female leads into escapist time travel stories.

And there’s no reason in the world why we can’t.  Consider the following:

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Visibility Matters: Why POC In Books Must Be *Described* As POC

There’s this thing some people say when folks complain about a lack of diversity in literature—they claim that if characters are not described, then any racism is in the mind of the reader.  That we shouldn’t complain, because it’s our own fault if we imagine the characters as white.

People have thrown this argument out during pretty much every sufficiently long discussion of race in fiction that I’ve had, from when I criticized the lack of diversity in Redshirts or The Dresden Files to when I’ve spoken about it more generally.  It’s almost a sure bet.  In fact, someone brought it up on Twitter today in one of the discussions sparked by the excellent #DiversityInSFF hashtag.

Whenever people use this argument, they treat it as clever, a slick turnaround—”it’s not the author who’s racist, it’s YOU!  You’re the one who’s imagining everyone as white!”  And I want to put my head through a wall, because there is so much wrong with this argument I can’t even.

First of all, let’s talk about why diversity in media is important.  Part of it is so that people, particularly young children, can see characters who look like them in heroic roles—but even supposing children in marginalized demographics haven’t been inculcated enough into the cult of our dominant media to imagine undescribed characters as looking like them (and I dare you to tell me it’s their fault if they don’t; I dare you), that is not the only reason for including POC in literature.

Media is important.  Books are important.  What we read, imagine, absorb—this is culture in its most potent form, and it affects us.  It shapes our perceptions, it pushes at our worldviews.  Can anyone honestly tell me the written word has no power?

When you put something out into the world, when you write a book and you offer it for people to read, you are impacting the culture.

If your book erases the existence of POC in favor of a white land of white heroes, what impact are you having?

If instead your book omits description and the vast majority of your audience defaults to imagining your characters as white anyway—which they will—the difference is academic.  The images in your readers’ minds are the same as if you specified your characters’ monochrome paleness.  Your impact on culture is the same.  And make no mistake, it is an impact.  White characters (or undescribed characters who default to white) are a choice, just as POC characters are a choice, and you are pushing the culture in one particular direction, just as a more colorful cast would push it in another.

But you know what?  There’s another very good reason the “it’s the reader’s fault!” argument is just ridiculously silly, and that’s that it DOESN’T WORK.

You know how I know?  I tried it. I thought, yeah, that argument is bunk, but there might be something to a tweaked version of it—that it might be be a Good Thing if I challenged my own default perceptions, if I made an additional conscious effort to imagine sparsely-described characters with more melanin in their skin, even in books that didn’t take place in strongly minority environments.[1]

And what happened?  I got smacked in the face for it, every single time.  Because somewhere along the way, two chapters or twenty chapters or whatever later, the author would make a reference to the character’s milky skin, to paleness, to a reaction to the appearance of a darker-skinned character . . . and it was so totally clear that this character was meant to be white all along.  That I had been meant to imagine the character as white.  That the author had assumed I had been doing so.[2]

The cognitive dissonance started ruining the reading experience.  Books forced me to white as the default perception.  And they’re doing it to everyone who isn’t trying such an experiment as well, even when we don’t realize it consciously, because any deviation from this happy equilibrium of white-as-the-default is so inevitably punished by the narratives when one so much as pokes one’s nose outside it.

I still try quite hard to imagine more characters of color where I can, because I’m stubborn, and I think it’s valuable for me to do it.  The result of this is that I’ve found myself more and more drawn to authors of color and books with minority milieux,[3] because then I can happily imagine every undescribed character as a POC and not be knocked down a few chapters later by the author’s assumption that I didn’t.

  1. When reading books with a dominant culture that’s nonwhite, this works out just fine, but that’s not what I’m addressing here.
  2. The most hilariously extreme example of this—though with sex rather than race—was when I was reading War of the Worlds, and, perhaps overly influenced by Warehouse 13, decided to imagine the first-person narrator as a woman.  I knew that wasn’t going to be what was intended, but I thought I’d see if I could read the text that way.  I remained undeterred when she spoke of her wife (and hey, Warehouse 13’s female H.G. Wells is bisexual anyway, so it fit!), or of men’s clothing, but was only a few chapters in when the narrator referred to himself as a man.  Shot down.  Now, before anyone jumps up and says, of course you can’t do that with H.G. Wells as he’s ancient!, the vast majority of the books I tried this experiment with were much more modern.  This was just the funniest example.
  3. Which I try to read more and more of anyway.

How I Would Rewrite That Atrocious Gun Scene in “The Newsroom”

The Newsroom is a great show.  I do have some doubts, however, on whether Aaron Sorkin has any idea at all how to write a believable Republican[1]—Will is supposedly a red-blooded conservative, but we’ve seen him smoke pot, bully a (gay) man to the point of cruelty over not being supportive enough of gay rights, and freak out over people carrying guns (one of whom was his bodyguard, and both of whom were licensed).  If we saw him rant about fiscal conservatism and shrinking government alongside these things it’d make more sense, but, y’know, we haven’t.

I thought the gun episode would have been a perfect time to showcase some more Republican-esque beliefs and make him a more believable conservative.[2]  Also, it would have been nice if it hadn’t been utterly failtastic in the way people handled firearms!  So, I give you:

HOW I WOULD REWRITE EPISODE 4, PARTICULARLY THAT ATROCIOUS GUN SCENE:

  • The team is going over how the gun lobby has misrepresented the debate (which I think was all well done, incidentally; I’m constantly reassuring my friends in the gun community that Obama does not want to come steal our weapons[3]).
  • Will goes on a date with the crazy woman.  He goes to get the marijuana from her purse and sees the gun.
  • He freaks out a little bit.  He asks her about it.  (So far I’ve changed nothing.)
  • Now, instead of WAVING THE MUZZLE ACROSS HER with the gun fully loaded (WHAT), what if he’s freaked out and doesn’t want to touch it?  And what if he’s pro-gun in the show instead of anti-gun, and his freaked-out-ness is despite him being pro-gun?  I know a lot of people who are good with guns in theory, but absolutely disturbed by them in practice.
  • Then, how about if the woman takes it and unloads it, NOT POINTING IT AT HIM, and gives him the line from the show about being a liberal from the South.  Then what if she says something like, “I thought you were a Republican.”
  • And maybe he says he is, but he’s still not sure he’s comfortable with a gun in his living room.
  • Instead of POINTING THE GUN AT HIM, she cites some statistics about gun ownership reducing violent crime rates.
  • Instead of POINTING THE GUN BACK AT HER, he confesses some doubt over the veracity of those statistics, or agrees with her but says dating someone who’s carrying just freaks him out, or admits that it feels different when he knows he’s with someone who’s actually armed, or, I don’t know, ANYTHING BUT POINTING A GUN AT HER.
  • Later, he talks to Olivia Munn’s character about setting him up with “Annie Oakley,” and how about if she says something like, “I thought you were a Republican” and he has a continued crisis of theoretical Second Amendment beliefs versus feeling freaked out by his date packing heat in her purse?  Instead of Will having some sort of bizarre across-the-board condemnation of firearms despite being a Republican, what if this encounter makes him question his pro-gun Republican beliefs?  NUANCE, Sorkin, NUANCE.
  • Above all, don’t end the episode by lining it up with the Gabrielle Giffords shooting.  Not because of my personal feelings on guns, but just because it felt really emotionally manipulative.  Like an episode in which the characters debate domestic terrorism defense ending with 9/11 would.  The Giffords shooting was a huge tragedy, and it felt cheap to use it to cap an episode about guns.

You know, I’m totally fine with the show’s narrative coming to the conclusion that the benefits of gun control outweigh the benefits of gun rights.  But in the past (see The West Wing), Sorkin has been better about at least showing the various sides of political arguments, of having a reasonable voice of dissent that shows not all people who believe XYZ are evil irrational monsters.

To sum up: Why did the one woman who carried in the episode have to be painted as a crazy lady, and why did Will dismiss gun ownership as crossing-the-line insane despite being a Republican, and why did every sane character dismiss gun rights as not even worthy of debate instead of there being a single rational line expressing the other side of the issue . . . and above all, why did the two characters point a firearm at each other despite both being coded as knowing something about guns?  Seriously, the flagrant gun safety violations bothered me more than EVERYTHING ELSE in the entire episode.  Forget the politics; if you have the least iota of firearms knowledge or experience, YOU DO NOT DO THAT!

  1. Or woman, but that’s a different story.
  2. I’m pretty slanted on the liberal end of the spectrum myself, at least on social issues . . . but I do so hate informed attributes in characters.  I’d rather see a believable character I disagree with than a shell of a character whose views are entirely inoffensive to me.
  3. Of course, the state of California is another story . . .

This App Is Everything I Don’t Want Twitter to Be

Yesterday I became aware of this app called JustUnfollow.

It’s a Twitter app that will help you automatically unfollow people who don’t follow you back. And make sure you’re following the people who follow you.  Apparently it’s good for increasing your Klout score.  Or something.

This is me blasting my brains out.

Holy crap, if you asked me for every extreme along every axis of how one could use social media in a way that makes me want to run screaming, this would be the quintessential example.

Reasons this just sounds like an exhausting, draining, horrible way of using Twitter that exemplifies everything that is wrong with the world:

  1. I follow people because they are interesting and I like reading what they have to say. What they say does not become less valuable or interesting if they don’t follow me back!
  2. Piggybacking off of #1: I actually read my Twitter feed.  What else is it there for?  Why else would I be on Twitter?  So if I’m NOT following interesting people who say things I want to read, I might as well give the whole thing up as a bad job!
  3. Because of #1 and #2, there is no way I’d want to make the set of my Twitter feed exactly equal to the set of people who follow me.  That sounds not only horribly boring and limiting, but it seems likely it would be an echo chamber of people who aren’t actually interested in anything anyone else is saying and are just trying to brag about their numbers of Twitter followers.  Also, how do you ever expand that type of group organically, if no one will ever interact with anybody who isn’t already interacting with them?
  4. Whether I follow someone or not is not generally personal. It has a lot more to do with (a) whether the person happens to feed me news, jokes, trivia, etc. that are both of interest to me and packaged in a frequency and attitude that happens to click with my reading and news-consuming habits, or (b) I like interacting with the Twitterer on a personal level (or both).  I’ve unfollowed people I respect or think are interesting simply because their Twittering habits did not jive with my reading habits—but I still respect them as people and read their blogs and whatnot.  You know what would make me NOT respect them as people?  A revenge unfollowing.
  5. I’m not going to follow someone just because that person follows me.  This requirement would make it actively more difficult to have my stated goal of a feed filled with interesting people who say things that are valuable to me or interact with me in ways I enjoy, because I’d be obligated to follow anyone who followed me regardless of the negative value that person would introduce to my Twitter feed.
  6. To summarize points #1-5: My Twitter feed is all about me.  It’s about what I like to read and what’s fascinating to me and the people I’m friends with.[1]  It becomes a less useful thing if I let anybody else muck with it using any criteria other than “these are the people I like to read.”
  7. An app like JustUnfollow makes Twitter all about grabbing for followers.  How ugly is that?  The reason I’m enjoying Twitter so much has nothing to do with aggregating followers; that sounds exhausting.  I’m enjoying Twitter because I like chatting with people on it.  Quality of interaction—not quantity.

Maybe there are functions of apps like JustUnfollow that make them useful and not horrible.  I’m willing to listen if someone wants to convince me this isn’t a soul-sucking leech of a program.  But even the branding—”JustUnfollow?”  Billing its primary function as automated unfollowing, not because someone on your Twitter feed is mucking up your Twitter reading/engaging experience but because they had the audacity not to follow you back?  Gah!

I’m loving Twitter. But an app like JustUnfollow would turn it into all the worst things about social media.

And hey, if you see me on Twitter and want to be Twitter friends, interact with me. I’m @sl_huang, and despite this rant, I’m very friendly.

  1. I like my Twitter feed.  I knew I had a good composition of people on there when the Doctor Who casting news came out, because it had never been so abundantly clear that the people I follow were in the intersection of folks with both an abiding interest in nerdy science fiction shows and a burning drive for better representation of women and minorities in media.

“I’m a Doctor, not a Mrs!” — genderbent McCoy

Why is it that I can watch TV in the twenty-first century and still see female PhDs and medical doctors not addressed as “Dr?”

My friend used to make fun of me while we watched The West Wing, because every time the other characters addressed Abbey as “Mrs. Bartlet,” I would mutter, “Doctor.”  (To be fair, they did address this later—it turned out the campaign had decided to call her “Mrs.” for “likeability” reasons.[1]  But that was two seasons in, and gosh it pissed me right off, especially considering that even internally they all still called her “Mrs.”  Can I just say how happy I am that the news media always introduces Joe Biden and his wife as “Vice President and Doctor Biden?”)

But now I’m watching The Newsroom, which, awesome show, but dammit if Sorkin isn’t doing it again.  They constantly repeat on the show that Olivia Munn’s character has two PhDs—and yet she’s still somehow always “Miss Sabbith.”  WHAT.

(mild Newsroom spoilers below)

In fact, to add injury to insult, when her boss is tearing into her after she made a bad mistake, he calls her “girl”—to which she retorts, quite rightly, “Don’t call me girl, sir!”  Well, he keeps doing it until the end of the episode (I think it’s supposed to be funny), at which time he lets her out of the doghouse with the peace offering of calling her “Miss Sabbith” instead.

EXCUSE ME, IT’S DOCTOR SABBITH.

But it’s not just Aaron Sorkin (although Lord help me, and I do think The Newsroom is brilliant, but I’m starting to see patterns in how he writes his female characters . . . well, all his characters, but particularly the female ones).  It’s other shows as well.  For instance, The Big Bang Theory sends the main characters to a conference, and all of them have their names on name placards.  The male PhDs all have “Dr.” in front of their names . . . but neither of the women do.  Now, we find out later that one of them hadn’t received her PhD quite yet at this point, but we also find out at the same time that the other one had.  So WTF, Big Bang Theory?  If the writers just weren’t sure which of the women had graduated yet, why did they have to put “Dr.” on anyone’s nameplate?

Hey, here’s another one.  I’m not a regular follower of NCIS, but I seem to recall Abby Sciuto also has a PhD.  And yet whenever she’s referenced by title, it’s “Ms. Sciuto” . . . unlike (male) Dr. Mallard.

To be sure, most shows don’t do this.  Can you imagine Dr. Brennan, Dr. Hunt, Dr. Cuddy, Dr. Crusher, or Dr. Fraiser being addressed by anything other than their rightful professional titles?  Not a chance, right?  But then why are there shows where this happens?  What does it say that I was ecstatic to see that Dr. Blake on Eureka was never deprived her title, given that (white, male, non-PhD) Carter was the clear lead?[2]  And why am I able to name four modern shows off the top of my head in which this has actively bothered me?

  1. Because of course people prefer a woman to be defined by her relationship to her husband rather than by her own accomplishments, am I right?
  2. Eureka was wonderful for not depriving its female characters of their doctorates, no matter how young and adorable they were.