Junot Diaz on Pigment Politics and Decolonial Love

I’m re-posting this excerpt from Junot Díaz, at the Facing Race 2012 conference in Baltimore 11/15/12 with some transcriptions I did.

On Pigmentation Politics – 6:45

“What was my process like in identifying my own systems of oppression? That’s actually a wonderful question and conversely difficult. … I think what’s interesting about that is how many of us are aware of the strange and agonizing systems that both invite us to tyrannize other people and that help to tyrannize us. I think for me, belonging to a family of 5 young immigrant kids of African descent, from a poor Caribbean family, the first step in this process was noticing how clearly and how nakedly privilege got distributed in my family across racial and gender lines. Which is to say my family was like a really fucking weird experiment in pigmentation politics. Where the bizarre fiction of eliding light with lovely really was practiced superbly well in my family. So that the lighter siblings of the five, [people] were always like ‘you guys are so beautiful, you guys are so nice, you guys are so amazing,’ and they even received less punishment than the rest of us who are considered more racialized. And then of course this gets complicated [by] gender was also, in my family we were split between brothers and sisters.

“And for me I think one of the first steps in this idea was both how I noticed this system very early on, but also how greedily I attempted to profit from it. Because it’s one thing to point out when somebody’s trying to put a foot in your ass, but usually most of us, while that’s happening we’re trying to put a foot in someone else’s ass. And I noticed that I was at the receiving end of this sort of stuff, but I was also really kind of gleefully practicing it. And I know the consequences of that in my family, 5 kids, each of us a year apart, really tearing each other up along those lines. A lot of the pain and the damage, a lot of the treachery, a lot of the cruelty, this followed us into our teenage days and became not only a source of tension, but when we got older a way that we began to talk to each other.

“And listen guys, when you’re that close in age and that close in family, if you grew up like we did where you stacking 3 kids to a bedroom, it forms part of your conversation, it’s hard to run from that, though people can. And I think the kind of ways that I hurt my little sister, the kind of ways I betrayed her, the kind of ways that I sort of projected a lot of racial and hetero-normative and masculine shit on her in a way that really hurt her, and the way that it kind of deformed her childhood. And both of us growing up with the consequences of that, her more forcefully and palpably but me more as someone who had spent a lot of time victimizing her. I think those are the roots of when I think about working and it becoming clear that one has to do a lot of internal work to really get anywhere in this world especially if one who’s really interested in racial justice of any form. I think usually most of the groundbreaking occurs inside of you, I think of that when I think of it. Yeah, it’s tough.”

On De-Colonial Love – 20:45

“What links most progressive people …to the most rabid right wing lunatic is how gleefully we exercise our privileges. The funny thing about our privileges is that we all have a blind spot around our privileges shaped exactly like us. Most of us will identify privileges that we know we could live without. So when it comes time to talk about our privileges we’ll throw shit down like it’s an ace and that shit is a three! I understand that. You grow up and you live a life where you feel like you haven’t had shit, the last thing you want to give up is the one thing, or the couple of things that you’ve really held on to.

“I’m telling you guys, we’re never going to fucking get anywhere—if you want to hear my apocalyptic proclamation which I would never repeat, but which I know you motherfuckers are going to tweet about—we are never going to get anywhere as long as our economies of attraction continue to resemble, more or less, the economy of attraction of white supremacy.

via Racialicious

Infographics and UIs I’ve Loved

Some of my favorite characters in movies aren’t people, they’re GUIs (graphical user interfaces). In Iron Man, Stark’s robot butler named Jarvis is represented as a wonderfully snarky and futuristic UI. I recently saw a movie called Sidewalls where the main character was an architect and she would see the sketches behind the buildings. In Stranger than Fiction the GUI transports you into the mind of a compulsive IRS agent. It’s wonderfully appealing, see for yourself:

(I only picked up Pale King because I thought it would be similar, let me know if it isn’t). The recent British Sherlock Holmes show, Sherlock employs a similar trick. All of these UIs, as I’m calling them, display more information on the screen than you would otherwise see, but in a way that doesn’t feel cluttered or unecessary.

Lately I have been really enjoying these older data visualizations at A Handsome Atlas. Infographics and maps overlap in some very interesting ways. Good Magazine consistently does this well, as does the NYTimes Online. Here are some interesting visualizations of New York, and maps made by local artists/designers Sha Hwang and Eric Fischer. It seems like a designer’s job is to balance, usability, aesthetics and economy, is a cartographer a designer too? How is their job different?

Measuring Pain

Not all pain is visible. There are many different kinds of intense internal pain. The way that pain was always explained to me is as swelling of some sort, some organ or vessel is engorged enough to be too big for its container. There are other types of pain, (strains, psychological pain, etc.), but it seems to me that this type of pain would be good to measure. If you told a doctor you were in pain and then you gave them a measure of it, they’d be more likely to believe you and treat you. If, you weren’t able to measure it using that pain measuring device you would know that it was a different kind of pain and they would be able to treat you better because of it. win-win

Why can’t we measure pain? We understand a lot about pain these days, how it works in the brain, different mechanisms for its transmission, yet we rely completely on patient assessment for pain reporting. It is important (probably the most important thing) to take that into account, but it should not be our sole source of information.

Also this article is amazing:
No Evidence of Disease

In which I worry about my debt

I think it’s time to talk about my debt, because I certainly can’t stop thinking about it. Doing this masters degree is going to put me in debt. I’ve never had any student loans before, I’ve been able to acquire scholarships and financial aid, I worked through college and my parents were able to help out. Now I’m on my own and by the end of this year I will have almost $50,000 worth of debt. I worry about my debt.

I carelessly missed many scholarship deadlines so I can’t get help in that way and most masters programs don’t give financial aid the way that PhD programs do (this is extra frustrating since I plan to pursue a PhD). The idea is that with the professional degree you should be able to pay back the loan by working in your chosen profession. But what if I decide, after going to school, that I don’t want to be in this profession? I worry.

In order to pay back my loans in 10 years (for 1 year’s worth of a 2-year program), it will be about $500 a month. The theory is that having these computer science skills should raise my income by about that much over my lifetime. But not if I don’t use them. Even if computer science jobs are as recessionproof as they say I may not find a job. Even if I do find a job I can stand, $500 a month is a lot of money. I worry.

It’s hard for me to concentrate on my studies with the weight of this debt on my shoulders. In addition, my chronic health problem isn’t getting any better and I fear the stress of school and debt and work is making it worse. A few weeks ago my net worth went from positive to negative. I worry.

My mother assures me that I’m not alone, that the skills will not be worthless, that the knowledge will be helpful (even if it’s the knowledge that this isn’t for me). There are more scholarships, I could work for the government, and that we will repay my loans together. And yet I worry.

Would I worry less if I was in working retail and living in a crappy apartment? Who knows. I worry that I am putting off life in order to concentrate on school and it will catch up to me. I don’t know how this is going to work out, and not knowing is making me worry..

Apple Maps – Old News

*I’ve decided to change my blogpost day to Monday and shorten the posts while I’m in school.

It’s been a few months since Apple announced it would they would create their own map app, no longer relying on google maps. I’ve linked to a few articles below. I read somewhere (I can’t remember where) that apple has hired real cartographers to run their maps department while google hired computer programmers. I’m curious to see how this turns out.

With the advent of GoogleMaps everyone became an amateur cartographer. But in order to make maps that display more specific information you need to be able to use a program like ArcGIS and you need some rudimentary knowledge of programming. Is this a problem? In my Human Computer Interaction (HCI) class we’re learning that it is never the User’s fault if they can’t get something to work. Is it okay for some fields to require specialist knowledge? Why/Why not?

On a personal level I’m trying to figure out if it’s worth it to learn enough about computers and programming to write my own programs or whether I just need to learn how to use the crappy existing ones well enough for my needs.

Discrete Math Concepts

I’m taking a test tomorrow, so I’m going to use this post to help me study. So this post isn’t so much what I have been thinking about all week (I’ve been out of town for a wedding), it’s what I should have been thinking about this week. It’s also an experiment in talking about math and technology using words (If you find math boring, feel free to read someone else’s blog). I’m taking a class called Discrete Math, most people don’t know what this is (I didn’t either, before I took the class). Discrete Math is a requirement for most Computer Science students, it’s a jumble of math concepts that apply to computers including Logic, Algorithms, Set-Theory, Graph Theory, Combinatorics and Number Theory (here’s a video intro if you’re curious). It’s not discreet meaning hidden or restrained, it’s discrete; meaning distinct and separate. Discrete math deals with numbers that you can count, as opposed to Calculus which deals with infinity and continuity. It’s my understanding that computer’s can’t deal with infinity, they will just count and count until they run out of memory or power. They can count pretty high, but they’ll never get to infinity.

I’m almost done with the course so I can share some of the things I’ve learned and how (I think) they apply to Comp Sci. First we went over some basic logic, we thought about how to convert English sentences and arguments into logical symbols, how to test the validity of an argument and also how to use truth tables. How to convert spoken language into symbols is helpful, but to me the clearest application of logic to computer science is the use of truth tables. Truth tables are manipulations of true (T) and false (F) values, if you substitute 1 and 0 for T and F, you have classic binary values that computers can read. A bit is a boolean string of length 1, it just tells you whether something is true or false, on or off, black or white.

Next we studied basic sets, and equivalence relations. Sets are essentially primitive databases, in fact, a csv file, that you can open in excel, is just a set of numbers or strings (csv stands for comma separated values). Proofs and relations help us to define exactly what is in a set and how sets relate to each other. These laws determine how to manipulate data; a lot of it has to do with what things we consider to be equivalent. It’s really important for computers to know whether something is the same or not. Things that are the same can be grouped with other equivalent things, they related to themselves (reflexive) and others in a certain way (symmetric and transitive). Equivalences set the parameters for a computer’s sense of discretion, it helps computers to discern and judge like things from unlike things. To me, this is what makes computers ‘smart’, the fact that they can distinguish one kind from another (maybe someday they’ll be able to tell good from bad, right from wrong).

In the second unit we looked at sequences, sums, induction, algorithms, and number theory. Here we took a basic look at the different ways to tell computers what to do, and how effective they are. For a set you can input each entry separately, or you can populate an entire dataset by defining a function, and saying everything in that sequence is in the set. There are two main ways of defining sequences, you can define the first term and have a rule from there (recursive), or you can define it abstractly (closed set). Mathematical induction is a type of proof that uses the same idea as a recursive set; it says if you can prove the first idea and then say that the second idea is implied by the first idea everything else falls into place. I understand this in theory, but I had a lot of trouble with this in practice, it tends to use a lot of algebra I haven’t used in a while.

Next we looked at algorithms. My teacher says ‘Algorithms are a recipe to solve a problem,’ an algorithm is a series of steps which when followed will solve a certain type of problem. For example we looked at the Euclidean Algorithm to solve Greatest Common Factor problems. To apply the concept of algorithms to my programming class an algorithm is like pseudocode. One way to write a program is to start with pseudocode, it’s like a very detailed outline. You write out a line of code saying, for example, “if a < b, switch b and a". The code in JAVA would look something like if (a < b) { a=b; b=a;} In another programming language it would look different, but the algorithm or pseudocode could be the same. In number theory we looked at how integers interact with each other, the Rules of Arithmetic (addition and multiplication are closed, commutative, associative, have identity, inverse and multiplication distributes; there is an ordering relation and a divides relation). Using these rules we are able to find primes and come up with a division algorithm. These types of rules would be very helpful if you were trying to build a calculator, and what is a computer but a giant calculator?. My test is on the second unit so I'll have to go over some induction examples, and also memorize the formulas for recursive sequences and the rules of arithmetic. p.s. As if it didn't take me long enough to learn how to spell rhythm, now I have to learn algorithm?

Zula Forthrast

If you’ve been reading my blog you know that I’m starting a masters in computer science and I’m trepidatious about it. I’ve been trying to read up on the subject, but other than textbooks, I’m finding that most computer science reading lists include a bunch of sci-fi, which (along with computer games) really doesn’t interest me in the least. Which is why I was surprised when someone recommended a Sci-Fi novel to me because there was a character who he thought was a lot like me. I don’t see a lot of people like myself in books, especially not sci-fi. The book is Reamde, and the character is Zula Forthrast. An Eritrean orphan, adopted by a family in Idaho, with a degree in computer science and geology. She wears heavey-rimmed glasses and rocks a “hyperspace-librarian girl-geek” style. The book is really long, and seemed to be mostly about a MMORPGame so I opted to listen to the audio-book, trying to follow this interesting character and learn about the culture and science of computers along the way.

The author, Neal Stephenson, has written a lot about computer science, including an amazing essay on operating systems called ‘In the Beginning there was the Command Line.’ Like his essay, this books is jam-packed full of ideas about computers and where technology is headed. The plot got way too convoluted way too fast for me, but it was well-written enough that I was compelled to finish it.

After the brief introduction I was excited about this badass Zula, (and flattered that someone thought she was like me). But I ultimately felt like she was just another fetishized sci-fi girl, sprung from the brain of a man (there was particular episode involving a tampon that made me question whether any woman had even read the galley). I didn’t really get a chance to see her in action as a computer-geek before a convoluted plot whisked her off to China and then Canada on strange pretenses (I don’t think it’s giving anything away to say that the reader had his work cutout for him with accents including, Irish, Welsh, Russian, Hungarian, British, Arabic and Chinese). All in all I’m glad that she exists as a character, but left the book ultimately disappointed by the execution of her character.

That’s not to say there wasn’t anything interesting about the book, like I said before, the book is chock full of knowledge. Zula was still an extremely interesting character, and there are some really interesting things about computers and gaming culture. Zula’s uncle Richard helped create a computer game called T’Rain. The game is unique for two reasons, one economic and one geographic. The economic one is that the game takes two distinct gaming cultures into account, the Western cultural paradigm, where consumers spend money to be entertained (real money becomes virtual money) and the Asian one, where people game for a living (virtual money becomes real money). The other thing that makes the game stand out is its geophysical accuracy, one of the other founders created the game mostly because he was tired of how inaccurate the landscapes were. This is where Zula comes in, working with the geophysics experts and game designers to make striking and realistic landscapes. These two characteristics make the game extremely profitable.

I glimpsed a slice of the gaming culture through this book. Most of which I found repulsive and uninteresting, but some parts I found intriguing. Throughout the book T’rain is undergoing a ‘War of Realignment,’ which the game’s fake historians are chronicling as they go. The origin myth was a fairly basic Good vs. Evil story, but overtime this shifted into a new-school (Forces of Brightness) vs. old-school (Earthtone Coalition) battle. It’s essentially aesthetic, someone posted a way to hack into the settings so you could give yourself a blue mowhawk, and many people decided change their characters to brighter colors, while originalists chose to keep the more old-school, traditional gaming look. In this way you can track people by their color palette, the gaming company hires a colorist to keep track of palette shift, who is wearing what, and what this means to the world. So fashion plays a surprisingly important role in this book.

I’d say the most prevalent narrator of the book is Richard Forthrast (Zula’s uncle), we spend more time in his head than anyone else’s. Like many older American men he has a few ex-wives. These women live on in his brain as a sort of conscience which he refers to as ‘the furious muses.’ They tell him to exercise (he does all his computer work on the elliptical machine), eat well, and do the right thing. Towards the end of the book he reaches a point where he needs to do something traditionally crazy, but the furious muses encourage him. I really related to the idea of your conscience telling you that you need to put your conscience aside for a minute.

Anyway, I don’t know if I can really recommend the book, some parts are great, some parts were awful, and it’s exceedingly long. But if you like this kind of thing, then you like this kind of thing (and you’ve probably already read it).

San Quentin Avon Walk

My mother is a nurse at San Quentin State Prison. She’s worked there for 4 years but for security reasons I’ve never had the opportunity to visit her there. This weekend a group of San Quentin inmates and staff partnered with Avon for a walk to end Breast Cancer in the San Quentin Yard. This is one of very few opportunities for inmates to interact with civilians. We didn’t really know what to expect going in.

First there were some ground rules: we weren’t allowed to take anything in except our IDs and car-keys. We weren’t to take anything out with us either. When interacting with the ‘men in blue’ the only physical interaction allowed was a handshake. We were also reminded never to run on grounds as the gunmen in the towers were instructed to shoot anyone running. When we walked in and the bars clanged behind us there was no doubt that we were in prison.

In the yard (which my mother can see from her office), men were lifting weights, playing tennis and basketball and generally enjoying what turned out to be a very nice day. It didn’t feel all that different from a very ghetto park, except with more barbed wire, and everyone had on blue (except the other walkers in pink shirts and the guards). As we sat in a back room we were told that there was a delay with the opening ceremony as we were waiting for prisoners to be let out of lockdown.

After meeting the inmates involved in SQ CARES, we took one silent lap around to remember those we’d lost to the cancer. We were told that 5 laps around the baseball field was 1 mile. While we wouldn’t be able to complete the 39 miles because we were only allowed on grounds for a few hours, the inmates would do just that over the 2-day weekend.

As we walked, men began to recognize my mother, their nurse. The first man who walked some laps with us had seen my mother for some back problems he’d been having. My mother told him we had waited for some guys to get let out of their cells, ‘Who was on lockdown?’ she asked. ‘Whites’ he answered. As he said this, I noticed how racialized the yard was. There were maybe a couple hundred men around, the vast majority of whom were African-American. There were a few whites, latinos and Asians but mostly black men socializing with other black men.

After a bit, a man about my age (mid-twenties) asked if he could walk with me. He told me about his favorite music (Tupac) and I tried to keep up with the conversation as he talked about Rap and Hip-Hop artists he liked. I noticed that some of the men in the yard had discmen with headphones in. He said they could borrow cds from the library and he had some friends who had lent him different albums. I noticed that most of the songs he mentioned were popular in the mid-ninties, making me wonder how long he had been incarcerated. But after a few laps I think he realized I was mostly a pretty boring nerd and wandered off to walk with someone else.

Most of the rest of the time I walked with a man named ‘Luke’ who initially asked me for a quote, he was on staff at the San Quentin Newspaper. He walked around with a handheld wordprocessor which he typed with one hand. I learned that had also played Hamlet in a recent play (recorded by KQED). I talked to him for for some time, he was very well versed on current events and had interesting things to say about Barack Obama, Governor Jerry Brown and the state of the American economy. When I told him I was in Computer Science he told be about a project he had been working on. Like any newspaper there were always some articles that were submitted but unpublished. He said he wanted to start a website to put up the articles that couldn’t get published in the newspaper, so that the people could feel like their words weren’t going to waste. I told him a little about HTML and that I would do what I could to help him, though this might not be very much, since I couldn’t exactly come in and get a flash drive from him.

The walk ended with a closing ceremony on a small stage in the middle of the field. There were announcements as we’d reached the $10,000 goal and some prisoners performed a rap they had written about walking to fight breast cancer. The experience was truly unique. I certainly had many moments of anxiety, but unlike my experience in the Afghan refugee camp, I was with my mother. She knew all the guards (who joked with her about her chronic tardiness, CPTime), all the inmates who knew her were happy to see her, and we kept the mood light, in intense environment.

When I got home to my computer, I realized that San Quentin News was already online at SanQuentinNews.com but Luke didn’t know because they didn’t have internet access on grounds. While I was online researching San Quentin News I started to look up what these people had done to end up in San Quentin, but I stopped myself. Remembering that the worst thing you do is not the truest thing about you, and that these moments we shared were as true as any others.

Talking about Math and Science

Like I’ve mentioned before, I have been taking some online math and programming courses as pre-requisites (or rather, requisites) for my Masters program. In my blog, I like to write about what is going on in my brain during the week, the thoughts I can’t seem to stop thinking about. Lately I’ve been thinking about math and science, but not writing about it. Why am I so loathe to write about math? I think it’s because I assume, like so many others, that no one wants to hear about math and no one wants to talk about math. If this is true, I want to try to change it.

I talked to a woman the other day who is a very successful lawyer. She said that in high school she loved physics, and going into college (UC Berkeley if I remember correctly), she wanted to be a physicist. She said it wasn’t poor teaching or intimidating classes that steered her away, she said she wanted to study something that she could talk about. It’s easier to talk about ideas you’ve read because they are in the same form as the way we speak (words), but how do we talk about math? I think it’s important for people, women especially, to learn how to talk about math and science in our everyday conversations. Why is it that we think these ideas are boring? Probably because we don’t talk about them.

In the spirit of talking about math/science and computers I’ll talk a little about my experience taking these courses the past couple weeks. As a student of the humanities (Near Eastern Studies and Geography), I have written many papers. I am really familiar with the process of writing a paper; formulating an argument, writing an outline, doing research, writing and editing drafts. I have done problem sets before, but I am re-learning the process. First off, I am relearning how to type. This is frustrating since I am a very quick typist in English, however, in html and LaTeX markup languages I use keys I’m unaccustomed to (like \ / |^$), I make mistakes and I have to type slower. It reminds me of learning to type in another language like Persian (well I guess it is another language). Typing isn’t the only part of the process that’s slower in computer science, since I haven’t done as many math problem sets or written many programs I don’t have a good idea of how long they are going to take. I’ve found that problem sets and programming code require more time at the end, whereas papers require more time at the beginning. Thinking about a paper and making an outline take the most time (for me at least), but with a math problem set, the first few problems are generally easier, it’s usually the last few that are hardest and take some time. With programs, well I don’t totally know how they work since I’ve only written a few, but I heard someone say that programming consists of writing bugs and fixing them, you have to allow yourself time to write all the bugs and fix all the bugs, and right now it’s really difficult for me to estimate how long it might take to do this. I have faith that given time and practice, this process will become as familiar to me as writing papers.

In the business world (especially in magazines and publications) there seems to be a schism between ‘creative types’ and ‘business types,’ a line I’ve always sought to straddle. People who write and work with art and ideas are considered ‘creative’ and people who work with computers, numbers and spreadsheets are considered ‘business/engineering types.’ I don’t think I should have to pick a side. As a woman of color, though, I do feel some pressure to go where I feel more underrepresented. I’ve never felt the pull of writing that others talk about, but I think I could express myself in the language of computers if I learned it.