The black Harry Potter

In Profiling a Book Collection, middle-school librarian Julia B. Chambers discussed a content survey she and some volunteers did of the school’s collection, along with some preliminary results. I wasn’t terribly surprised by her observation that

“Our protagonists are mostly Caucasian and more likely female, with only three in the entire collection demonstrating gender questioning or ambiguity. Two-thirds of our collection feature characters from middle- or high-income families (of which almost all are nuclear in structure). And most of our literary characters are straight (only 13 books featured LBGTQ characters.)”

I don’t know whether these demographics are representative of The Athenian School in Danville, California, where Julia serves as librarian, or whether it’s representative of the available books out there, or whether any of that really matters. Selecting books for a library collection is a non-trivial task, with any number of competing philosophies urging one heuristic or another.

But then she started talking about race. And race in the context of fantasy:

“At quick glance, most of our titles featuring African American characters are historical fiction with themes of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, or Civil Rights struggles. The black Harry Potters are simply not there.”

Who *are* the black Harry Potters? I racked my brain to try to come up with any non-Caucasian wizard-type protagonists in any books I’ve ever read. I came up with two, neither of whom are black:

Do magic-wielding youth from other cultures and ethnicities truly not exist? Or are they chronicled in books written in other languages, enjoyed by those with the ability to read them, but locked away from those who can fluently read only English, until the glittering hand of some translator should set them free?

Do share the non-Caucasian wizarding books I’ve overlooked, forgotten, or not yet encountered.

Be an Anthropologist to spot human ingenuity

I’m reading “The Ten Faces of Innovation” for my class on Maker Spaces. The book was written by Tom Kelley, the CEO of IDEO, a design firm that by definition is invested in being creative. Kelley begins by demonizing the Devil’s Advocate, which he claims “may be the biggest innovation killer in America today.” Critical thinking is good, but the DA is just too negative and squashes creativity.

Instead, Kelley identifies ten different “faces” (or roles) that people can employ to generate new ideas, solve problems, and otherwise innovate. Here I’d like to focus on just one, the Anthropologist, and the interesting view of the world that it encapsulates. (Possibly I find it interesting because it is so foreign to my usual modus operandi.)

Anthropologists gain inspiration by watching people. They observe them struggling with metro turnstiles or pushing that door instead of pulling it. In watching how people interact with the world, they learn not only what things are problematic but also what creative workarounds people already have devised. I figure an Anthropologist was behind the hands-free liftgate feature of my new car: he or she probably watched people approach their car with both arms full of stuff, then fumble or have to put things down to open the back. Now I can just swing my foot under the bumper and the liftgate opens automatically. Bingo!

An example of learning from workarounds might be the pave where they walk approach of planting the quad with grass, waiting a week while people walk the paths they want to walk, and only then pouring cement to create the sidewalks to match.

Kelley suggests an exercise to allow you to try out the Anthropologist face (or hat, or glasses, or whatnot):

“If you take a close look at your world, you’ll notice clever people playing the modern-day role of fix-it man. We’ve all seen the Post-it note with a helpful little instruction on top of the photocopier or the handwritten sign taped to the front of the reception desk.

To see how many exist in your world, try this exercise one day. Write down every fix you see at work, at home, or out on the town. Watch for things that have been duct-taped or bolted on. Look for add-on signs that explain what’s broken or how a machine really works.” (p. 29)

So, I did this.

My first observation was that post-its are rampant. The walls and the computer monitors in our Mars rover tactical operations room are filled with post-its. They include tips on how to disable the screen saver, how to “fix” the projected image when the refresh rate is wrong, who to call for certain problems, etc. In a meeting room, I found that the light switch was annotated with a sticker that says “Off: click down.” The light switch is a slider, which makes it seem like you can turn it off by sliding it all the way down. It’s dim enough at that point that it’s hard to tell whether it’s on or off. But instead you have to press hard enough to make it click before the light turns all the way off. I’m guessing that there was a lot of energy wasted before someone decided to just add the “click down” instruction. Solved!

In the break room, I found the following amusing sign taped to a cabinet above the sink:

“Please, only water-soluble liquids in sink.

Anything else will clog it.

Ok, so H2SO4 is water soluble,
but don’t put it down the drain either!”

Note that these are not just commands being inflicted on others. In most cases, they are work-arounds developed to address a design or use flaw. When the problem itself can’t or won’t be fixed, people step in to indicate how to deal with it. These are generous acts that may transpire between people that never meet face to face… but benefit regardless.

What fix-its have you seen today?

The burden of being a Facebook Friend

Seth Fiegerman argues that the experience of aging in Facebook is a more trying one for those who joined it in their 20s than for the rest of us who joined after we’d already experienced an adult life. Younger users are “forever connected to people from the past” (even if they’d rather not be) while “older users [have] a powerful tool to reconnect with those they’ve long since lost touch with.”

He describes these younger users as being burdened by a growing balance of tenuous yet tenacious “friend” connections. These are not your true, close, cherished friends in the present, but rather those people who you once attended class with or met on a bus ride or used to date. “Before Facebook,” he argues, when the reason for regular connection and conversation was gone, those people would naturally and gently fade into the background and out of your life. But with Facebook, you must take “an unnatural and severe action” to “make a conscious choice to delete a person from your life.”

There might be a reason that Facebook cheerily informs you when someone sends you a Friend Request, but provides no announcement when you are Unfriended. Or maybe that makes it worse, as you are left to discover your change in stature serendipitously, when you return to to a Once-Friend’s photo album and realize that you can’t access it anymore.

What’s unnatural and severe, I think, is not the conscious act of managing your friendships, but rather the Facebook concept of a Friend. Being connected to someone on Facebook encompasses a broad range of relationship types, not just friendship. It can indicate a networking connection with a work colleague, a shared hobby, an interest in dating, a current partner, an ex. In many cases, you might accept a Friend request out of social obligation rather than any personal interest. That doesn’t happen in real life, because we don’t go around distributing Friend status badges for people to wear. Friendship is permitted to be fluid and continuously valued rather than a discrete state that one attains.

Google+ made an effort to recognize these nuances by creating “circles” (friend lists) that had names other than “friend” (like Acquaintances). I’m not sure this solves the problem, either. It’s still fundamentally categorical, a constraint that seems to flow from the concept of a social network as a, well, network. Each pair of people either do or do not have a link between them.

A different possible refinement would be to create links between everyone and allow them to have a real value, or weight, associated with them that indicates the strength of the connection (which might be zero). These weights could be used by a social networking site to automatically filter that overwhelming news feed from all of your connections so that the highly weighted links provide more of the traffic you see. While perhaps more flexible, this approach also has problems: who wants to spend hours specifying the degree of friendship they have with each of their connections? And updating it as life progresses? What would they get out of it?

I also find it interesting that Seth, who lumps himself in to the “under 30” crowd plagued by these lingering ghost connections and an inability to Unfriend them, characterizes anyone over 30 as blithely free of such constraints. Those over 30 instead use Facebook to RE-connect with people they’ve lost track of over the years. “It’s where you rediscover old friends, coworkers and estranged family members,” but “the thrill is often short-lived because these relationships have been dormant too long.” Instead of too many past-their-expiration-date connections, the over-30 crowd is unable to jump-start the ones they miss most.

Both experiences can be traced to a common root cause: the ease with which you can Friend someone. It is easy to connect, socially awkward to disconnect, and fatiguing and impractical (in many cases) to resurrect an old connection that no longer exists in your non-Facebook life. And yet I wonder how differently these social phenomena would play out if we simply changed the name of a social link. What if you Bookmarked people instead of Friending them? That would constitute a one-way link with minimal (or no) pressure for reciprocity, and it wouldn’t have the social connotations of a “friend.” It would allow you to keep up and share with people of interest. And for those leery of pruning even their bookmarks, it would be easy to implement a time-decay rule that gently and silently removed bookmarks that didn’t see enough use.

Another option, of course, is to sign off of Facebook and go play board games, see a movie, make dinner, or otherwise hang out with… your friends.

Relationship benefits from pornography

Today I came across a mention of an interesting study, titled:

Female Partners of Men Who Use Pornography: Are Honesty and Mutual Use Associated With Relationship Satisfaction?

Annoyingly, only the abstract is available; the article costs $39. But from the abstract, we have:

“Participants reporting more honesty showed higher satisfaction and lower levels of distress, and participants disclosing mutual use showed lower levels of distress, although no differences were reported in satisfaction.”

… from which Scientific American concluded that being honest about your porn use leads to more relationship success. But it seems the study only interviewed heterosexual women about their male partners’ use of pornography. A bunch of questions crowded into my brain, like:

  • What if more honesty about anything leads to more relationship success (because you feel there’s more communication or whatever)? Where’s the corresponding study on honesty about something that isn’t porn?
  • Why is there an assumption that only men use porn, or that only women would be distressed by their partner’s use of it? Where’s the corresponding study on men’s opinion of their female partners viewing porn?
  • Why the restriction to heterosexual women? Clearly they really wanted to focus on male use of porn. Or there’s some assumption here that it’s a male-only thing. I don’t think that’s true?

So then I browsed around and found this article (of course we only get the abstract again):

Pornography Use: Who Uses It and How It Is Associated with Couple Outcomes

which looks at porn use by both men and women. However, it concludes that “overall results from this study indicated substantial gender differences in terms of use profiles” (I’d be interested to know what they were) and that:

“Specifically, male pornography use was negatively associated with both male and female sexual quality, whereas female pornography use was positively associated with female sexual quality.”

Here I think “sexual quality” means something like “sexual satisfaction.” Or does it mean the quality of the sex one has? It’s also not clear whether “associated” means “what these couples report thinking about it” or “what we actually measured in these couples,” and I’m curious about what the negative associations were. And if any of that $39 were to go to the authors of the paper, I’d be tempted to pay it and find out.

Instead, I was able to find someone else’s summary of this article, which clarifies:

“Specifically, the men in the study were more likely to view pornography alone than the women, and this led to lower levels of sexual desire and lower levels of sexual satisfaction for both the men and the women.

By contrast, the women in the study tended to only view pornography when they were sexually aroused, and do so in the company of their partners. This increased the sexual satisfaction of both the men and the women.”

This suggests that porn viewing as a couple activity can be beneficial. Is there room in our society’s generally negative, condemnatory, and narrow view of pornography to accommodate these findings?

Solstice drift, and how to fix it

The summer and winter solstices happen around the 20th of June and December, respectively. Around the 20th? That seems rather… imprecise, for an astronomical event with a precise definition: the time at which the Sun reaches its “highest or lowest excursion relative to the celestial equator on the celestial sphere” or, for the viewer standing on the Earth, its highest or lowest altitude from the horizon. This is determined by the Earth’s orbit and corresponds to the time at which your current hemisphere’s pole points most closely to, or farthest from, the Sun. So why doesn’t it happen at the same time each year?

Inspired by an awesome book I recently acquired (“Engaging in Astronomical Inquiry” by Slater, Slater, and Lyons), I decided to investigate. I used the Heavens Above site to pull up historical data for the summer and winter solstices going back to 1980. I plotted the time for each solstice (in Pacific time) as its offset from some nearby day (June 20 or December 21). And sure enough, here’s what you get:

The solstice time gets later by about 6 hours each year, until a leap year, when it resets back by 24 – 6 = 18 hours.

Of course, the solstice isn’t really changing. The apparent change is caused by the mismatch between our calendar, which is counted in days (rotations of the Earth), and our orbit, which is counted in revolutions around the Sun. If each rotation took 1/365th of a revolution, we’d be fine, and no leap years would be needed. But since we’re actually about 6 hours short, every 4 years we need to catch up by a full rotation (day).

Now, we all know about leap years and leap days. But this is the first time I’ve seen it exhibited in this way.

Further, you can also see a gradual downward trend, which is due to the fact that it isn’t *exactly* 6 hours off each year. It’s a little less than that: 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 46 seconds. So a full day’s correction every four years is a little too much. That’s why, typically, every 100 years we fail to add a leap day (e.g., 1700, 1800, 1900). 11.25 minutes per year * 100 years = 1125 minutes, and there are 1440 minutes in a day. But that’s not a perfect match either… which is why every 400 years, we DO have a leap day anyway, as we did in the year 2000.

This is what, in computer science, we call a hack.

And now it is evident why for every other planet, we measure local planet time in terms of solar longitude (or Ls). This is the fraction of the planet’s orbit around the Sun, and it varies from 0o to 360o. It’s not dependent on how quickly the planet rotates. It’s still useful to know how long a planet’s day is, but this way you don’t have to go through awkward gyrations if the year is not an integral multiple of the day.

By the way, you can get a free PDF version of ‘Engaging in Astronomical Inquiry’. If you try it out, I’d love to hear what you think!

« Newer entries · Older entries »