Notes on Attraction, repulsion and desirability

What am I measuring? And why? One of my jokey subtitles for my dissertation was ‘quantifying the oppression olympics.’ You know the ‘oppression olympics‘ that ‘game’ you play with your friends at cocktail parties competing over who has it worse, disabled people or trans people? Black people or Latinx? It’s not a fun or particularly useful game because pain is pain, comparison isn’t usually going to get you to improve your cocktail party or lead to understanding. But exploring the question of which demographic groups are most and least respected in the US seems worthwhile.

Another way of putting this is social desirability. A friend once joked that the most powerful people in America were old rich white men and young attractive women. The term social capital is used to refer to education and other attributes that make people attractive in the economy. Social desirability includes the more attributes that make people attractive in sidewalk interactions, which often happen very quickly. On the nature vs nurture debate, I think social desirability is more nature, since it has a lot to do with what you look like, while social capital is more nurture. While completely subjective ‘attractiveness’ is also completely socially constructed, overtly political, and objective in the sense that you are treating someone else as an object rather than a subject. While it’s true for someone to say ‘I’m just not attracted to black women’ this truth was not achieved in an apolitical media vacuum and OKCupid stats bare this out.

With the recent incel news came this article: Does Anyone Have a Right to Sex. In the article, Amia Srinivasan problematizes sex-positivity which, she argues, covers for misogyny, racism, ableism, transphobia and every other oppressive system under “the seemingly innocuous mechanism of ‘personal preference.” While gay men understand and problematize this phenomenon with thing the webseries ‘What the Flip’. However, writes Srinivasan,” straight people – or should I say, white, able-bodied, cis straight people – aren’t much in the habit of thinking there’s anything wrong with how they have sex.”

Getting In and Out: Who owns black pain?

Some poignant words from Queen Zadie Smith in a recent Harper’s article on the movie Get Out and the painting Open Casket:

Peele has found a concrete metaphor for the ultimate unspoken fear: that to be oppressed is not so much to be hated as obscenely loved. Disgust and passion are intertwined. Our antipathies are simultaneously a record of our desires, our sublimated wishes, our deepest envies. The capacity to give birth or to make food from one’s body; perceived intellectual, physical, or sexual superiority; perceived intimacy with the natural world, animals, and plants; perceived self-sufficiency in a faith or in a community. There are few qualities in others that we cannot transform into a form of fear and loathing in ourselves.


City as Interface

I found it. Last year at this time I was looking for a term for a phenomenon I hadn’t seen described before, which I had given the cumbersome title of ‘urban community worldview‘. Well I found it, in Martijn de Waal’s book the City as Interface. His book looks at how technology is changing the urban landscape and he sets up 3 urban philosophies that underlie urban ideal types: libertarian, republican and communitarian.

    libertarian – the libertarian city is centered around economics, and focuses on individual privacy. Public spaces are primarily used for the market.
    republican – the republican city is based on the idea that each person is a citizen and has certain responsibilities. The name is a reference to the latin res publica or public interest.
    communitarian – the communitarian city is based on harmonious village and focuses on a collective rather than individual identity. Public space is primarily used for rituals.

The central proposition in this book is that many urban media mainly support the libertarian urban ideal. With their emphasis on efficiency and personalization, they approach city dwellers as individual consumers and increase their freedom to organize life according to their own insights; at the same time, these media also reduce city dwellers’ mutual involvement. This is not a foregone conclusion, however: other examples of urban media are based on the republican ideal. They succeed in combining the smart city ideals of personalization and efficiency with the social city ideals of citizenship and connection.

-Martijn de Waal, the City as Interface

My research definitely explores this idea of what people’s urban ideal types are and whether or not technology can help get them there. As such I had also been looking for an easy way to collect data without having to design and market an entire app just for my research. I thought I’d found it in Open Data Kit (ODK); this platform was designed with an android operating system in mind which is great because I wanted to include a free smartphone for those who want to participate in my study but can’t afford a smartphone (you can buy a cheap android phone for about $20 these days). Unfortunately with all that android compatibility, I found it almost impossible for my friends with Apple iOS to use; enter Kobotoolbox. I’ve now created a prototype to collect data with their setup. Coming soon to a smartphone near you…

The Women Reading Upstairs

When I lived in New York, I (think) I came up with an expression: The difference between being lonely and being alone is a good book. I had spent a lot of time lonely but not alone and alone but not lonely and the distinction seemed arbitrary. I was trying to find out how to flip the switch when a friend recommended Atlas Shrugged which I greedily devoured over the next month or so. What I realized was that it had a lot to do with how I felt I was being perceived by others. I felt loneliest when I felt the pity of others. When engrossed in a good book it didn’t matter what others were thinking about me. Recently I read Claire Messud’s the Woman Upstairs which reminded me of Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller. The women of Messud and Heller are alone with books. Their worldviews are shaped not just because they were alone, but because of society’s perceptions of their loneliness as women.

Messud and Heller have both been criticized for these characters. Messud gave an interview in Publisher’s Weekly where the interviewer criticized her character’s likeability, a decidedly gendered attack. Heller’s book is on the Wikipedia list for ‘unreliable narrator.’ While I acknowledge that the women had boughts of anger and bitterness, I completely empathized with both of these characters. In fact in response to Messud’s interviewer, I would want to be friends with Nora and Barbara, they’re both whip-smart and well read, I’d love to see Nora’s art or compare biting cultural criticism with Barbara.

I see these women as potential friends but also as cautionary tales. The criticism of the books belies the scorn I would experience from society if I became a woman upstairs. Society only teaches us to measure us in the mirrors of others. Both stories deal with betrayal, but the moral of both of these stories is one of the narcissism of solitude. Of the distortion of individualism that we experience without others:

People like Sheba think that they know what it’s like to be lonely. They cast their minds back to the time they broke up with a boyfriend in 1975 and endured a whole month before meeting someone new. Or the week they spent in Bavarian steel town when they were fifteen years old, visiting their greasy-haired German pen pal and discovering that her handwriting was the best thing about her. But about the drip, drip of the long-haul, no-end-in-sight solitude, they know nothing. They don’t know what it is to construct an entire weekend around a visit to the launderette. Or to sit in a darkened flat on Halloween night because you can’t bear to expose your bleak evening to a crowd of jeering trick-or-treaters. Or to have the librarian smile pityingly and say, “goodness, you’re a quick reader!” when you bring back seven books, read from cover to cover, a week after taking them out…About all of this, Sheba and her like have no clue.

Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller.

I kept thinking, as I was telling Didi, that somehow what was in my head—in my memory, in my thoughts—was not being translated fully into the world. I felt as thought three-dimensional people and events were becoming two-dimensional in the telling, and as though they were smaller as well as flatter. that they were just less for being spoken. What was missing was the intense emotion that I felt, which, like water or youth itself, buoyed these small insignificant encounters into all that they meant to me. There they were, shrinking before my eyes; shrinking into words. Anything that can be said, can be said clearly. Anything that cannot be said clearly, cannot be said.

Claire Messud’s the Woman Upstairs

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

Power Dynamics

This week I started taking some programming and math classes as pre-requisites for my Comp. Sci. Degree and, as I suspected, they’re really difficult. Why am I working so hard (and spending so much money) to get a degree in Computer Science anyway? Well there are a few reasons:

I need a marketable skill in order to compete in this job market. The job market for recent college grads in the US is DIRE. I was really lucky to find a job when I first graduated from college, finding another one has been truly challenging. I was unemployed then underemployed then unemployed again, accruing debt the whole time. With this degree at least I’ll be accruing debt with a purpose. Even if I can’t get a job that is different from one I’ve had before, I’ll probably be able to automate it somehow. Do it faster and more efficiently with the help of computers.

I think women and minorities are underrepresented in technology which affects the products we have the world we live in. Women and minorities have always been underrepresented in technology, what’s most worrisome to me now, is that our numbers are actually going down. There are half as many women in tech now than there were in the 80s. I don’t know how technology would be different if it were designed by women, but if I don’t participate in it, I never will.

I’m really uncomfortable with not knowing how computers work. More and more, we spend most our time on computers and dealing with technology. If knowledge is power, I am not comfortable giving that power and control to someone (or something) else. It’s MY computer, it should do what I tell it to. It’s not a person, it doesn’t have free will, if it isn’t doing what I tell it to it’s because I’m not saying it correctly. Computers have astounding potential, but if I’m not using it, what the point?

I need the knowledge to work on the (geography) problems I care about. In high school I fell in love with Calculus, in particular, I remember spending hours working on one problem, how best to display a sphere (3D) on a page (2D), a problem of map projection. I was (and am) convinced that there is a way to minimize distortion with the magic of calculus. Taking more math classes now I am getting excited about different problems that I can use computers to solve. Problems with access to information (geography/IT/translation), women’s issues, 1st world problems, 3rd world problems etc. Computers can help.

These (compelling) reasons aside, I’m not a computer scientist and I’m not really interested in becoming a programmer (unless I can make a lot of money doing it, which is possible). Partly I’m using computer science to help me figure out what I really want to do with my life. It’s hard going through all these math and programming classes, and to be honest, I might not last. But I think every minute is worth it, each class is one more computer skill that most people don’t have, a leg up on the competition. Plus, the harder it is to accomplish something, the more pride I feel when it’s done. With math and computer science it’s more than pride, there’s a power in mastery, when you can take a tool that almost everyone uses in a general way to do something specific and helpful to you, you make it your own.

“Between the ages of 20 and 40 we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our duty to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity.”

-W.  H. Auden via Gretchen Rubin


Some new terms I learned this week and where I came across them:

ambiguous independence – this term is used to refer to modern single mothers; while they may not be stuck in the abusive marriages they would have suffered through in the past, they often struggle financially without another breadwinner ; Double X Gabfest, according to Hanna Rosin used by Harvard Sociologist Kathryn Edin.

conspicuous conservation – when people buy things in order to convince their neighbors that they are ‘green’ ; freakonomics podcast

fascinator– an ornamental hat ; the Hairpin

Jute– A member of a Germanic people who invaded England in the 5th Century ; Rudyard Kipling: How the first letter was written

phpht – an interjection to show disagreement or annoyance, also one of very few English words without vowels ; Lifehacker: A Better Strategy for Hangman

piede greco (Greek foot) – when the second toe is longer than the first ; Golden Smith via I’m Revolting, also on 25 Everyday Things You Never Knew Had Names

precocious puberty – when puberty appears earlier than normal;

sibling strife – an extreme form of sibling rivalry, where siblings can’t enjoy each others’ company ; Sibling Rivalry Grows Up via Double X Gabfest

I recently heard of a term for a specific type of agoraphobia that affects African Americans when in predominantly white neighborhoods, any help identifying the word would be greatly appreciated.

Updated 6-4-12: 25 Words that don’t exist in English

Updated 6-7-12: apophenia – seeing meaningless patterns in meaningless data


I’ve been reading a book about provincial life set in the mid 19th century and became curious about the descriptions of peoples’ faces. To me, Byronic locks and a noble chin don’t give me a good picture of someone at all. Maybe that’s because I grew up in a world with pictures and movies and internet and I’m not used to using my imagination. Maybe words are just not the best medium to describe the human face. Maybe it’s because there is more variation in face shape in 21st century California; in 19th century England, most people looked fairly similar, so a description could easily conjure up the type of face that this person might have. But lately I’ve been toying with the idea that description says more about the describer than the described.

To a disturbing extent we see what we want to see. In college I took a class in which we talked about the Portuguese discovery of Africa and America. The most advanced maps that the Portuguese had were based on world travelers, who were fairly accurate about the places they were familiar with, and less accurate about the communities on the periphery. The borders of these maps were full of fanciful monsters (one of whom used his extra large foot as a parasol to shade himself from the African sun). The explorers were so willing to believe that Africans and Native Americans were not human because they were expecting monsters that when they found people who didn’t look like them, they assumed that they must have found these monsters.

On this week’s Culture Gabfest, Stephen Metcalf recommends a genre of poems where the narrator is a person who sees someone else and fills in what they don’t know about them with their own imagination.

What is the best way to describe someone’s face? How do we use other peoples’ faces to project our own beliefs?

“Language gives a fuller image, which is all the better for beings vague. After all, the true seeing is within; and painting stares at you with an insistent imperfection. I feel that especially about representations of women. As if a woman were a mere colored superficies! You must wait for movement and tone. There is a difference in their very breathing: they change from moment to moment.—This woman whom you have just seen, for example: how would you paint her voice, pray? But her voice is much diviner than anything you have seen of her.”
Middlemarch, George Eliot

“You see us as you want to see us, in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions.”-The Breakfast Club, John Hughes

Update 1/28: a great description of a face

“To superficial observers his chin had too vanishing an aspect, looking as if it were being gradually reabsorbed. And it did indeed cause him some difficulty about the fit of his satin stocks, for which chins were at that time useful.”
Middlemarch, George Eliot

Update 2/4

more monsters


I try to write a new post every week, to keep me in the habit, but I don’t really like writing blogposts, what I really like writing are letters. Today, instead of writing this post (or working on my personal essay for grad school) I wrote 4 postcards using my new christmas gift from the Russian (Pantone postcards) and a letter using stationary I made in a workshop taught by Barbara.

Here is a piece from the notes for my personal statement:

I once got into a debate with a friend at the University of Chicago, he was a couple years younger than i was and deciding on a major. He said he had decided on economics because it helped ‘explain the world’, I laughed and said, George, everyone says that about their major, you talk to a French lit major and they’ll say, ‘I really think French literature is the best way to help explain my world’. My mom used to say ‘it all comes down to Geography,’ but after studying it, I disagree. You can’t tell everything about a person by where they come from (I’m not a huge believer in the idea that Californians are lazy and dumb), but it does explain a lot. Tobler’s first law of geography, that everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things does still seem to have many applications.

Can someone tell me if there is a second law of geography?

The things that will kill us

Cigarettes, mercury, and radium are just three examples of deadly things we once thought were healthy and even medicinal. What are the things we do today that will kill us?

Sci-fi futurists have often imagined an iteration of the future wherein a machine can predict the way you will die, Ryan North and co. have pondered this question recently with the Machine of Death. While he and the Twilight Zone focus on the somewhat absurd, machines in movies like Gattaca focus on the more mundane probabilities, like heart disease. (I’ve always suspected that someone will accidentally lean on the keyboard of such machine, thus spelling my name, and learning my life story)

The big scientific breakthroughs always seem to come as a shock, so I don’t think it’s anything people suspect, TV, cell phones, microwaves, gmo corn, gluten, coffee or sugar. My guess is that sitting and staring at screens all day is a very unhealthy thing that most everyone does; but this is common knowledge. What everyday thing do you think will prove to be a silent killer?

…the Britannica has systematically, relentlessly, eroded my faith in doctors. That’s what will happen when you read page after page of bloody and bloody ridiculous medical history. I knew about leeches and bodily humors but that’s just the start. I’m still unsettled by trepanning—the primitive practice of drilling a 2-inch hole in the skull to let out the evil spirit. I’m sure during the heyday of trepanning the chief resident for trepanning at the Lascaux Grotto Hospital was very authoritative and assured his patients in a condescending tone not to worry about a thing. We’re professionals here, he said, as he smashed their skull with a rock.

Okay so that’s too easy. But medicine here in the postscientific age isn’t much more heartening. Here’s a quote that took me aback: “I believe more patients have died from the use of [surgical] gloves than have been saved by their use.” That’s one of the leading medical experts of the 20th century weighing in on the surgical glove controversy—a controversy I didn’t even know existed. In my encyclopedia, I wrote a little note in ballpoint pen next to that quotation: “Doctors don’t know shit.”

That was an overreaction of course. They do know a little shit.

A. J. Jacobs, The Know-it-All