This isn’t my typical Weekend Update. We’re all suffering from anxiety fatigue, outrage fatigue, bad news fatigue, and so on. So I’m not sharing any of the news stories that caught my eye after posting yesterday’s Friday Five. I’m going to post something cool and sweet and science-y that a friend brought to me attention:
This thread about a woman who is a squid scientist who put up signs in her window and set up sidewalk chalk so neighbors can ask science questions about squids and the like, and she would write answers!
Click on the tweet and read the whole thread. It’s adorable!
Danna Staff, the scientist in question, also has a blog. This is her post from which I stole the title of this update: The Best of Cephalopods, The Worst of Cephalopod.
She’s also got a book coming out this fall that you can pre-order now: Monarchs of the Sea: The Extraordinary 500-Million-Year History of Cephalopods.
So here we are (at least on this side of the International Date Line) at the fourth day of the month of May, where one of the things that tends to happen on the internet are various references to Star Wars, because of the pun, “May the Fourth Be With You.” So, happy Star Wars Day to those of you who observe it.
The fourth of May has other significance for other people. And we would be remiss not to acknowledge these important events that ought to be commemorated on this day. So:
- On May 4, 1436 Engelbrekt Engelbrektsson was assassinated. Englebrektsson was a Swedish nobleman who led a rebellion against the King of the Kalmar Union, an event which eventually led to Sweden becoming a kingdom of its own. Englebrektsson is considered a national hero of Sweden because his actions gave peasants a voice in government for the first time, creating a Riksdag (a deliberative assembly or parliament) structured so that peasants and laborers would have equal representation with the number of nobles.
- On May 4, 1886, in the midst of a long-running strike, police marched on demonstrators in Hay Market Square in Chicago, Illinois. Someone threw a bomb. The police began shooting randomly. And I really mean randomly, because autopsies determined afterward that almost all seven of the policeman killed in the riot were the victims of a bullet from another officer. Four of the labor demonstrators also died from gunshot wounds, and more than a hundred other people were wounded by either gunfire or shrapnel from the bomb. While May Day parades and demonstrations by labor had been occurring for a few years before this occurred, this event is often credited as solidifying the significance of May Day as a Worker’s Rights commemoration.
- On May 4, 1930, the leader of India’s civil disobedience campaign, Mahatma Gandhi, was taken into custody by the British police for the crime of making salt from seawater. His arrest sparked an upsurge in civil disobedience, generating world wide publicity and incredible pressure on the British to come to terms with the protestors.
- On May 4, 1970, during a protest at Kent State University against the bombing of neutral Cambodia by U.S. military forces, the Ohio National Guard fired on unarmed students, killing four and wounding nine others. In response to this, students at other universities went on strike, shutting down many campuses. The event also was significant in turning more public opinion against the war in Viet Nam.
- On May 4, 1983 the British warship, HMS Sheffield, was struck by missiles during the Falklands War. The excess rocket fuel in each missile ignited, killing 20 members of the crew. The ship’s diesel stores burned for days after the crew had been evacuated. The ship sank while it was being towed in for repairs.
Important historical events, all.
But while two of those occurred within my lifetime, one must remember that I am a white-bearded old man. The median age of the human race is currently 29 years old. Which means that half of the people currently alive on the planet were born in 1991 or more recently.
Which means that none of those events can be considered “current.”
Which isn’t to say that they shouldn’t be remembered, but there isn’t really a good reason that any of those events should be considered more important in history than the others.
Which also means that there is nothing wrong with people sharing a silly pun on this same day.
Regardless, we’re in the middle of a world pandemic. The more people you get wearing masks (and feeling socially shunned for not wearing masks), the more we reduce the spread of the disease. That’s just science. It’s also the moral thing to do.
So, wear a mask. Wash your hands. Keep observing social distancing. Let’s all do our part to keep as many of us alive until there’s a vaccine as we can. Okay?
I had planned to write something else today, but then I saw this post on tumblr:
“You’ll notice that LGBT pride parades are being cancelled, and LGBT people are not complaining and calling it an injustice. Meanwhile, Christians are calling it an injustice that churches are being closed, and conservatives are calling it an injustice that stay at home orders exist. That’s because LGBT people actually experience injustices, so they know when an injustice is happening. They face way too many injustices to label everything they don’t like as an injustice. And they’re not defying social distancing orders to have the parade anyway.”
“We also know the consequences of an unaddressed pandemic.”
A couple of other things worth noting. The U.S. stock market started going down in response to pandemic concerns the week of February 20, many weeks before the first stay-at-home order. The Dow Jones officially crashed (prices dropping so fast it triggered an automatic suspension of trading) on March 9th. There were no stay-at-home orders in place anywhere in the U.S. at that time. Companies were already laying people off and cutting back hours in anticipation not so much of stay-at-home orders but the fact that simply having lots of people sick, lots of other people afraid of being sick, and so forth was already causing people to cancel travel plans and so forth.
My employer, for instance, in early February cancelled most schedule employee travel (for sales, installation, and trade shower appearances, for instance) out of an abundance of caution.
Personally, in mid February I woke up with a fairly severe cough on a day that wasn’t scheduled to be a work-from-home day, and decided since I didn’t know if I had a something that I shouldn’t go into the office. The following week, again out of an abundance of caution, upper management encouraged everyone who could work from home to do so full time. Again, this was weeks before stay-at-home orders had been issued in any of the states where my employer has offices.
And when people are working from home, a lot of small restaurants, coffee shops, and the like in the vicinity of office buildings have a sudden significant drop off in business. So employees at those businesses get their hours cut. And so they have less money to spend on anything, and that means they cut out (first) non-essential spending, which causes more small businesses to cut hours, and it becomes a self-perpetuating downward economic spiral for everyone.
Lifting stay-at-home orders isn’t going to make everything spring back. It’s going to put a lot of people in the position of deciding to risk getting infected or starve, because if the order has been lifted not working is no longer involuntary and therefore they can’t collect unemployment. The science of the virus tells us that when people stop doing the mandated social distancing, infection rates will start rising again within a couple of weeks. And they will spike if we don’t have adequate means of testing people and a system for tracking down other people who have recently come in contact when an infected person, and so on.
Which means people will get scared and will cut back on activities that put them in contact with others and we continue to have places like restaurants, bars, theaters, and so forth not making enough money to pay their employees, et cetera.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If you want to read a much better (and scary) analysis, check out this article: We Cannot “Reopen” America – No matter when government stay-at-home orders are revoked, the American economy will not reopen. Because the source of the economic shock is not government orders. It’s the pandemic.
Note: My cough went away after about two weeks and I never had a fever… but the cough has come back several times. So far, still no fever. I have long suffered from severe hay fever and sometimes when the pollen count has been high for many days in a row, in addition to sinus congestion and typical allergy symptoms, I also get a cough. And we’ve had a lot of really high pollen days during the last two and a half months, so that’s probably what it is. Probably.
But we’ve had a bit of a scare because yesterday my husband was running a fever and had some non-repiratory symptoms that sometimes occur with the coronavirus… today his fever is gone and the other symptoms are subsiding, but that’s not necessarily proof that he’s well.
As more than one study has shown, emotions are actually necessary to processing logical problems. Our brains have evolved as a system to process information from our senses to evaluate our environment and make decisions about how to survive and succeed, and that processing involves hormones and emotions on at least an equal footing with what most people would think of as pure data. And as a social species, we are hardwired to take in cues from other members of our species into account, as well. This is true whether one is neurotypical or not. How a non-neurotypical person processes some of that input is what’s different, not that they don’t process it at all.
That biological need to take into account the feelings of others isn’t an accident. It’s part of a fundamental aspect of what has made our species successful thus far. Survival of the fittest means the fittest species to fill ecological niches, not the fittest individuals. Social animals, including humans, are fit for the environment because they take care of each other. Not because of a transactional obligation, but because a particular social unit benefits from having many members, sharing the burdens of keeping an eye out for danger, finding food, raising offspring, and so forth. Taking care of each other shouldn’t be thought of as a matter of charity—it should be recognized as necessary to the survival of the species.
And that’s just one of the reasons why feelings are important. Keeping track of each other’s physical and emotional health—maintaining each others’ goodwill and trust—are vital parts of our survival strategy.
But I most often encounter myths about logic divorced from emotion in certain fannish arguments where some people want to assert that there are objective criteria by which one can determine the definitive quality of a particular work. This is usually used as a cudgel to bludgeon fans who like things that the self-proclaimed logician dislikes, as well as fans who do not care for the favored thing of the logician.
And that’s just incorrect.
We’re talking about being fans of something. Since the logician is making a claim of definitive determination, let us turn to the Oxford Dictionary definition of fan which applies: “an enthusiast for a particular person or thing.” This sense of the word is derived from the word fanatic, which Oxford further informs us means: “A fanatical person, a person filled with excessive enthusiasm.”
Enthusiasm is an emotion, specifically a “strong intensity of feeling in favour of something or someone” and a “passionate eagerness or interest.”
Emotions, by definition are not rational.
While it is possible to evaluate a particular work of art (whether a novel, movie, television episode, graphic novel, short story, et cetera) in terms of craftsmanship, it will never be an entirely objective analysis. Feelings, preferences, and expectations will always color these evaluations. That doesn’t mean the evaluations are meaningless, we just have to recognize that there will always be subjectivity involved.
Also, craftsmanship isn’t the be all and end all of art. I might well agree that a particular story employs clever use of language and high skill at plotting and dialogue and characterization, I may also still not like the story for reasons complete separate from craftsmanship. Which is a perfectly valid part of the evaluation, review, and critique process.
Fan are passionate. Many of us love talking about the things we passionately like, and sometimes the things we passionately dislike. Some fans love to debate. Others just discuss. And the level of enthusiasm some of us feel make it sound like we are debating when we think we’re discussing.
Art, story telling, and the appreciation of those things are inherently non-rational. Which means that there is no formula or algorithm to settle upon a definitive, objective, or categorical determination of the relative quality of different works. Because, again, we’re talking about passion, enthusiasm, enjoyment, and satisfaction. All non-rational things.
When who plug in a bunch of non-rational ingredients into a purely rational process, you’re not going to get a meaningful answer.
And that’s simply logical.
The main thing I remember about that first election was that the person I voted to represent me in Congress won, while the down ballot races were more mixed. My preferred party lost the majority in the state legislatures lower house, that year.
Two years later was the first time I voted in a presidential election, and I have much more vivid recollections of just what a painful election it was. The guy I least wanted to become president (Reagan) won. My choices for Senator, Governor, and state Attorney General lost. The both house of the state legislator swung heavily into Republican control. I was devastated. It was another 12 years before the person who I chose on the general election ballot would win the Presidency—and that person had not been the candidate I supported during the caucuses. Then another 16 years before the candidate I favored in the caucuses got the nomination (and went on to become President).
My point is, out of 10 presidential election cycles, only four times did the person I vote for win, and even less often did the candidate I favored in the run-up even make it to the ballot. And the way things look right now, the person I wish would get the nomination and become the next president has become quite a longshot. But at no point has it ever made sense to me that I shouldn’t vote.
I was reminded this morning—while I was looking at the demographic information about who actually turned out to vote in yesterday’s primaries (and the heated discussion from some quarters about the results)—of the Zen story about A Drop of Water:
A Zen master asked a young student to bring him a pail of water to cool his bath.
The student brought the water, and after cooling the bath, threw the remaining water over the ground.
“Think,” said the master to the student. “You could have watered the temple plants with those few drops you have thrown away.”
The young student understood Zen in that exact moment. He changed his name to Tekisui, which means drop of water, and lived to become a wise Zen master himself.
The usual lesson people take from the story is that it’s easy while struggling with big problems (the buckets of water), to become careless about more routine chores.
One of the most fundamental of chores is to show up. It doesn’t matter how pure or noble your intentions are. It doesn’t matter how many people you have
harassed tried to educate on line. It doesn’t even matter if you have volunteered or donated to your great and noble candidate. If you don’t show up and vote, you leave the decision to other people. And yelling about conspiracies after the vote didn’t go your way, rather than admitting that the people who showed up (and thanks to voter suppression tricks going on in some states, stood in line for up to 7 hours before getting to cast their votes) just picked a different person.
If you did show up and vote, but the polling data indicates that a lot of people who claim to agree with you didn’t, those people are the ones you should be yelling at. They are the ones who have let you down. The other voters who maybe have your candidate as their second or third choice are not the problem.
Because I participate in the Hugo Award nomination and voting process, I frequently find myself at this time of year scouring review sites and such looking for things that were published in the last year that I might want to read. Now, I look at review sites and follow-up on book recommendations year-round, but usually when I sit down to nominate and start going back through the things I’ve read recently, it turns out that a large portion of those books and shorter stories were published more than a year ago, and therefore aren’t eligible—hence the need to find and read more things that are eligible to see if any of them wow me enough to nominate.
During this process I occasionally come across recommendations of things that I decide I definitely will not read. Sometimes my reason for not reading it is because the review tells me that the story deals with things I don’t want to read about.
Now, when I have admitted this before, there have been people who chime in to say that it is wrong of me to condemn a story without reading it; why don’t I give it a try, just in case I like it any way? I have two responses to that. The first is, me declining to read a story is absolutely not the same thing as condemning it. Secondly, I don’t owe anyone or anything my attention. How I spend my life (energy, time, money) is my business.
My friends will tell you that when I really like a book or a show or an author, I will enthuse about them rather a lot. I’ll urge them to check it out. If they’re someone I see frequently, I may repeat the recommendation many times. I’m doing this because I really like that thing, I genuinely think that they will too, and it’s fun to share an enthusiasm with friends. Sometimes, I don’t recall that they have already told me that they aren’t interested, or that they checked it out and didn’t like it, or whatever. So I’m not meaning to be annoying. But I know it can come across that way.
I know it, because I’ve had those “Why not give it a try?” conversations mentioned above, and find myself explaining exactly why I’m not interested in a particular subject matter or whatever.
Then, sometimes my reason for not reading it is because the author of the story is someone I find problematic. For instance, back when I was in my early 20s, a series of sci fi books came out that several of my friends were reading and really enjoyed. And the world the books occurred in seemed to be right up my alley. So I read the first book and liked most of it. There were a couple of points where rape—one instance psychic, another physical—figured in the plot in a way that felt unnecessary to me, but other parts of the story were great. But as I read through the subsequent books, physical rape, psychic rape, maiming, and a disturbing number of murders while in the middle of the sex act became more and more prominent.
I decided I didn’t need to read any more in the series. Even though there were a lot more books, and people were gushing about how great they were for years after. And when the author started another series in a related genre, and it became a bestseller, people were again enthusing about it. It had been long enough that I didn’t connect the author’s name with my previous experience until I read some reviews. The guy’s plot, according to all the reviewers, still wallows in rape, grotesque murder, and similar stuff. And I just don’t need to read yet another tale like that.
There are thousands of books that don’t leave me feeling dirty and blood-soaked nor do they cause nightmares. I’ll read those. It’s perfectly fine if other people want to read the blood-soaked rapey books. Me not reading that sort of thing is not the same thing as saying it shouldn’t be published, nor that it shouldn’t have been written. Many years ago, after a series of unpleasant experiences of by verbally harassed by bigots who (correctly) guessed that I was gay, I wound up writing a story in which a gay character was cornered and gay bashed… and rescued. With the bashers dying in the process. It was not great literature. The plot was barely there. Some people read it and enjoyed it. Other people read it and didn’t enjoy it. Some people, I’m quite sure, declined to read it when they saw the content warnings.
And all of those responses are valid.
You don’t owe other people an explanation for why you don’t want to read (or watch or listen to) a particular thing.
Listen, buddy, there is no pumpkin in pumpkin spice, and if you don’t like cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and such in your food or beverage, then don’t order it…
And yes, sometimes, I like to spice things with a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspace, and cloves. Because those spices tastes incredibly delicious on many foods.
As autumn approaches in the Northern Hemisphere, we see the unveiling of the many snarky and condescending memes and social media posts about pumpkin spice. And one of the things that really amuses me about them are the large number of them who seem to think that the drinks and foods and such are pumpkin flavored.
Pumpkin spice lattes do not taste like pumpkin. They taste like coffee, steamed milk, and cinnamon. It’s not pumpkin, guys, it’s pumpkin spice, specifically, the spices that are traditionally used in pumpkin pie. It’s spices—you know, those substances whose entire existence in our culture is to be added in small quantities to various edible things to make them taste better? It isn’t something weird or new-fangled or unnatural. They are spices.
If you don’t happen to like cinnamon and so forth, that’s fine. But there is no reason to go hating or shaming other people who do. And I find it particularly irritating when I see it being done by the kinds of guys who are really into craft beers, or who want bacon on everything, or who buy up the various winter ales/holiday beers as soon as they show up in stores. All of these foods and beverages are things that some people really like, other people could take or leave, and other people dislike. It’s no big deal.
I know that you don’t think you’re being an asshole. You think your clever meme about guys dressing up in pumpkins to attract the ladies is funny. I totally get it. There are foods and drinks that I despise, and sometimes I describe my dislike for them in rather extreme terms4. But just because I don’t like something doesn’t mean that it is inherently inferior to other things.
But your hating on pumpkin spice and your shaming of people who like it? That totally makes you an asshole. If you make fun of other people for liking cinnamon, you are a douche, an idiot, an asshole, and a petty insecure hypocrite.
You don’t have to buy any of the pumpkin spice things on the market. Their existence neither hurts you nor causes you harm. So chill. Relax. Let it go and stop hating on some spices. Unless you like being known widely as a prick.
1. He makes the most amazing soup. One time when word got out that he was making chicken soup for a writing meeting we were hosting, one pair of friends changed their travel plans so they can attend for the soup. That’s how good it is.
2. It’s a cake he invented when he was tired of people always hating on fruit cake, so he concocted a way to turn pineapple, apricots, figs, and a bunch of fruit into a puree and then cook it in a way that people think they are just eating fluffy golden sponge cake. One year he made a bunch of them that we served at our Christmas party, took to some other people’s gatherings, and he took two into his work. The cakes were so good, that two of the people at his workplace got into a literal fist fight over the last slice of the cake. And the company instituted a rule that Michael couldn’t bring in home baked good any more, for fear it would happen again3.
3. Just more proof that I am the luckiest person in the world, because that amazing man is my husband!
4. For instance, raisins. I hate them5. I often call them Satanic Fruit.
5. Seriously, they taste so vile that I almost vomit with I get some in my mouth. It took several years to get to the point where I could stop that reaction and just find a napkin to put the the stuff in6.
6. And I have a history of this. When I was a toddler, the doctor wasn’t happy with some of my blood tests, and told my mom to feed me something like an ounce of raisins a day for nutritional purposes. My poor mom tried. I violently spit them out, cried, pushed her hands away, et cetera. She tried hiding them in other foods, soaking them in water, soaking rhem in apple juice, cooking them in various ways, and so forth. And every time I spit out the raisins. I would eat the other stuff around them, but I spit out the raisins again and again. Finally, Mom called the doctor’s office to say that I absolutely refused to eat the raisins. They started listing other foods that would take care of the nutritional deficiency they were worried about. When they got way down on the list and mentioned liver, Mom interrupted: “Liver! Why didn’t you say so, he loves liver!7” And she hung up the phone and headed to the store.
7. She knew I loved liver because my dad also liked liver, so just about every pay day they would splurge on some liver and Mom would cook up a mess of liver and onions for my dad. And at some point Dad offered me some and I gobbled it down and wanted more8.
8. I know lots of people hate liver, and that’s fine. May taste buds are different from yours. Raisins probably don’t make you gag because your taste buds are different. That’s okay. You can have my share of the world raisin supply. I’ll take your share of the world liver supply. We’ll all be happy, right?
But you don’t have to take my word for it Rob Salkowitz breaks it down nicely: GEEKGIRLCON DEALS WITH THE PAINS OF PROFESSIONALIZATION.
“As anyone who has ever worked for or with a nonprofit can tell you, the transition from volunteer to professional organization is not always smooth. People who contributed to the growth of the organization may feel resentment toward an outsider brought in above them, whose job is to make tough decisions and impose management discipline on previously informal systems. As fair-minded and inclusive as you might want to be in that role, eventually you will piss some people off just because you are the boss and they aren’t.
“It’s not unusual for longtime staffers to quit in these circumstances, sometimes in a huff. Sometimes, to really make a statement, they’ll resign in a group. If there’s something actionable, they can call a lawyer. And if they really want to leave a mark, they’ll take their dispute public via social media.
“But taking over the organization’s official email to blast out their manifesto after they’ve already quit? Nope. NOPE. In no conceivable universe is that ok.”
We now know that all of those who quit were white guys who posted their grievances anonymously (vague claims of being discriminated against by the new executive director who happens to be a woman of color) because they didn’t think they would be taken seriously. And that might have been true no matter what, but the way they did it really shows all we need to know. I’ve been either on staff or closely involved with enough people on staff for a lot of cons to recognize both the dynamic Salkowitz explains above and the circumstances that likely led to the mass resignation. By the way, it was only five guys, out of a staff of a bit over 50, so while it seems like a lot, it certainly isn’t most of the staff, as their post clearly tried to imply.
I could go into more detail about why hijacking the con membership’s list was wrong, how it is triangulation and so forth. But the real reason is this: when I have been in situations where I felt I was the aggrieved party and have been tempted to do such things, I knew that the suggestion was coming from the little devil on one shoulder, and not the little angel on the other. (Although in my imagination it’s the evil fairy tale queen on one shoulder, and a happy glitter-covered fairy on the other).
We come up with rationales for vindictive, angry, destructive behavior all the time. It’s not fair, we say. Or they started it! Or it’s just the internet! Or I was joking! Or you took it wrong! Et cetera and ad nauseum.
Maybe you are right. Maybe you have suffered a great injustice. But here’s the thing: if you win by fighting dirty, that isn’t justice. The ends don’t justify the means. There is a big difference between righteous indignation and vengeful lashing out. Just as there is a difference between cruelty and kindness. How we take a victory or defeat matters just as much as the actual outcome.
Situations are messy and there’s always more than two sides to every story. But every side isn’t equally true, or equally valid, or equally relevant. And sometimes you can tell which side has the fewest facts in their favor by their tactics. And I, at least, can spot a sore loser from miles away. Even when they’re hiding behind anonymity, misleading verbiage, and the furtive fallacy.
There are not two of you. There isn’t literally a devil/evil queen on one shoulder and an angel/good fairy on the other. There’s just you. A noble and just person doesn’t have to resort to dirty tactics. If you’re fighting dirty, even if for a just cause, then you’re not the hero.
Which anyone who knows anything about security knows is the most insecure way to treat passwords.
My boss called everyone in our department together and said, “Do not write down your passwords! If we get audited, I will tell them that of course we comply with the policy and of course each of you showed me where your passwords are hidden, but darn, I seem to have forgotten.” Which is what every other manager in our division told their direct reports (And I suspect a whole lot of managers in all of the divisions).
I understand how a policy like that comes into being. Someone who was the only person with admin privileges on some important system in one of the other division was out sick or on vacation or maybe even had died and there was a great deal of trouble that wound up costing a lot of money (either just from all the time spent by a lot of people trying to fix the problem and/or other people not being able to do certain tasks for a while). The solution to that is not to make every single bit of proprietary information available to anyone who can sneak into an office and snoop for a while. The solution is to make sure every system always has multiple people with admin rights. As long as you have someone with admin rights who can reset other account passwords or give other people rights to access files or whatever that are only accessible ordinarily to the one employee who is unavailable, you can solve any of the other problems.
Trying to avoid repeating a mistake is a natural (and not unreasonable) reaction when something goes wrong. Unfortunately, in some circumstances involving certain sorts of people a very simple “solution” that is worse than the original problem is adopted.
I’ve been worrying about this a little bit because as part of the move we’ve been trying to make some changes in our behavior to avoid problems we kept having at the old place. Some are fairly east: don’t let dishes pile up in the sink; it’s all right to run the dishwasher when it isn’t completely full. Others are a little more difficult to stick to: take out the trash or recycle as soon as we notice it’s full.
Those are examples of things we kept meaning to change before. There were issues with the outside garbage and recycle bins at the old place that provided an excuse to put off dealing with the trash at certain parts of the week, but the real issue was procrastination and habit. Habits are reinforced by all sorts of things, for example, getting used to seeing dishes piled in that sink. So maybe the change in visual cues will help us develop a new habit.
Some of the new ways of doing things are because of issues we didn’t realize were happening until we packed up. We discovered all sorts of unexpected things lurking in the back of closets, or the back parts of shelves we couldn’t see easily, or behind furniture that was seldom moved.
But I also recognize that slavishly adhering to rules without regard to unintended consequences can create worse problems. So I’ve been trying to think of this as merely establishing new norms: not strict rules, just expectations.
And maybe that’s the secret: don’t be inflexible!