Sex at Dawn? Dusk? Noon? Midnight?

I really liked the book, Sex at Dawn. Supershort summary: the authors use anthropological and primatological evidence to dispute the general concept of what they call “the standard narrative” of human’s ‘natural’ reproductive involving “coy” women and “randy” men more or less monogamously pairing up to raise children then cheating on one another for genetic diversity and what not.

I was mostly biased towards agreeing with it from the get go. But some of the conclusions seemed to go a bit farther than I felt the evidence warranted, and I wondered if I was indulging in confirmation bias.

Someone wrote a rebuttal book, Sex at Dusk. I thought I should read it to give my skepticism a fair shake. I have read much of the way through it and will probably finish it eventually. However, while the author comes across as knowing her biology quite well, I found her tone difficult to stomach. I felt like Sex at Dusk was, while not constructing straw men, not quite faithfully representing the material in Sex at Dawn, representing that Sex at Dawn posited a pre-historic utopia. (For example, I’m not sure the infanticide frankly, though not extensively, described in Sex at Dawn is consistent with “utopia”).

But the particular two sentences that paused my reading for a bit really seems like a rather stunning anthropomorphization of gametes, particularly when the described difference would have evolved long before animals, let alone humans, came into being:

“It is interesting that this theory of the very beginnings of ‘female’ and ‘male’ present the ‘male’, the smaller sex cell, as the first to evolve, as if cleverly taking the advantage and virtually forcing the evolution of the ‘female’, the larger and high-investing sex cell. The male is portrayed as the exploitative sex from the start.”

One should ask, portrayed by whom? And this seems to be a fairly elaborate tale with a coyly presented “appearance” of intent by haploid cells. How much is being projected here onto distant plant(?) ancestors by modern minds? I read to the next section break and put the book down, moving on to other topics. It was funny that the rest of the section goes on to present a totally different theory of the evolutionary process involved (reducing organelle conflict in the zygote). But those sentences led me to seriously doubt the objectivity of the work, particularly as they seemed reflective of a tone encountered throughout.

I’m sure I’ll finish it, but I’m really not that convinced by the Sex at Dusk interpretation, though I do feel it is a useful counterpoint to Sex at Dawn on several details.

I also find interesting the easy dismissal of group selection in Sex at Dusk, and the severely limited mention of human homosexuality in both books (recognizing I haven’t finished Dusk yet). But that’s a thought for another time.

Favorite Books

So, my older sister Elizabeth, tagged me on a chain letter meme. I usually deplore these, but this one seems pretty good. I won’t be tagging others, but you can follow suit if you feel so inspired. Top 10 influential books in my life. When referencing series or anthologies, I’ll try to identify a story in particular that stood out to me:

  1. Ender’s game.
  2. the Prydain Chronicles, particularly Taran Wanderer
  3. The Hero and the Crown (I still have a ragged old copy of this book, it has immense sentimental value.)
  4. Magic’s Pawn, Promise, and Price. (It’s a trilogy, probably the first one stuck with me the most)
  5. Guns, Germs, and Steel broadened my perspective on the world and changed the way I think about technology, society, and material advantage.
  6. Dave Duncan’s “A Handful of Men” Pentology, particularly the Living God” (Most epic touching happy/sad ending ever)
  7. Vorkosigon Saga, by Bujold. Don’t make me choose a favorite, I will cut you. (Thanks, Laura Valentine), honorable mention to the Chalion series, but I’m not doubling up on authors and you can’t make me.
  8. A wind in the door (barely beats out a wrinkle in time, or arm of the starfish, but didn’t get into the rest of her work as much)
  9. Dragonlance Chronicles. It’s hella lame, but I tried to be Raistlin for about 3 years, no sense in denying it. Thank heavens I found better role models. Bupu forever!
  10. Everything Octavia Butler ever wrote, except the parables. (Thanks again, Laura).
  11. Narnia. (I realized I’d forgotten it, but I didn’t want to bump anything else)

I will say that I also read a ton of fairy tale anthologies and re-re-re-read Bulfinch’s mythology (and not just for the statue pics), but those seem not quite in keeping with the theme. Similarly, I’m not including Sandman because the wrong medium. Choose your own adventures as a narrative structure also deserve honorable mention if for no other reason than because I kept running out of fingers, and it definitely helped make understanding coding so much easier.

So, final tally:

4 Scifi, 6 fantasy, 1 non-fiction.

5 female authors, 5 male authors, 1 husband/wife co-author team

1 black author.

2 Female protagonists, 3 male protagonists, 5 Ensemble PoV stories (mostly male in most cases)

1 queer protagonist

1 protagonist (ensemble, really) of color (?)

Aside from the scifi/fantasy section of the library in general, Elizabeth and then Laura have probably done more to introduce me to these books than anyone else. Thank you both.

Gentrification and Exclusion

Because a conversation on another person’s wall devolved into someone writing “Techies, take your unnecessary, wasteful ‘innovations’ and ‘app culture’ nonsense and just keep it to a suburb, where you won’t be bothering people who do your laundry to pay their rent.” This person is not someone I know, so I don’t intend this as a response so much as a jumping off point for my thoughts on the gentrification issue.

  1. Prices are high in SF and most other high price locales because a) people want to live there, including people with significant money and income, and b) there’s a limited amount of housing there. If you don’t accept this premise, we can discuss your alternate explanations of high prices. (Pied a terres constitute a valid concern with this premise)
  2. It follows that you can reduce prices by either a) directly preventing people from living there or making it less appealing or b) building [a lot] more housing there.
  3. Housing in SF is limited in large part because it’s the tip of a peninsula with some rugged terrain to the south. The bridges, trains, and ferries connect the city to the surrounding area, but there’s a) there is very little undeveloped land in SF and b) getting to SF from the surrounding areas is a pain.
  4. However, SF can be built taller, much, much taller than it currently is, and thereby make room in a very desirable place for more people to live, and perhaps reduce the cost of living there. (Don’t bet on it). Zoning, or, if you prefer like I do, NIMBYism is the primary thing preventing this.
  5. This is not just a problem in SF, it is a problem in the surrounding areas. However within the greater metro area, SF probably the greatest accumulation of non-mobile physical infrastructure per unit area. Bridges, parks, enormous buildings, rail lines for BART, muni, and calTrain, paved roads, power lines, traffic signals, you name it. SF therefore has a unique role. Wishing to kick people different from you out of SF does bear a certain resemblance to wishing to remove native americans from the fertile land you’d like to farm. Wanting to keep them out resembles not wanting to let people different from you have access to the nice stuff in your neighborhood. You know, pools, lunch counters, that kind of thing. The enormous difference here is that it’s the people with less economic power who want to remove the people with more economic power. That is a huge difference, but it’s still excluding people different from you because they’re different from you and you can dress it up any other way you like to.
  6. There are ways to kick out the rich people, or at least control their ability to jack up prices for everyone else. They’re called taxes. Severely progressive taxation of land value, for example, for anyone owning land (note, not property) might accomplish that goal, and if not, plenty to invest in making SF an even more awesome place to live. However, if your goal is to do whatever it takes to drive the wealthy out of SF, I think this is both incredibly hard to do and a terrible idea.  If you drive the wealthy out of SF, you also drive the wealth out of SF. That means that they won’t be hiring SF residents to do their laundry, cook their meals, etc. Nor will they be paying taxes in SF. Be careful what you wish for. Detroit is a poor economic model for anywhere. But generally, if it’s a place people want to live, the rich people will get there, and only stay as long as it’s a place people want to live.  The poor will be stuck.
  7. To be clear, I think there is a great deal to be said for the progressive taxation, and making the people who can afford it pay for the amenities of urban life and making urban life more pleasant for them and everyone else.  I think there’s a lot of room to do that which would not turn SF into detroit and would actually make it a much more pleasant place to live.  I just think “I hate these stupid people with money and wish they would get the hell out of my nice town,” is a ridiculous, impractical, and counterproductive sentiment.

My final paper for my HCI Intro Course

Here is my final paper for my Introduction to User Centered Design Course, with perhaps a slightly more affirmative tone than is fully genuine, but I wanted to keep it anyway…

What I Learned in HCI 440

This course did help me achieve my goal of obtaining a better sense of what was entailed in the field of human computer interaction (HCI). The course helped me improve my understanding of the discipline’s focus, and its admittedly fuzzy boundaries. It also helped clarify the details of some components of the field.

In particular, there were three key points I learned in this course that were central to my understanding of what HCI is about. The first and most important is the centrality of users themselves to the process. HCI does involve the deployment of heuristics and professional expertise, but doing it well requires the active involvement of users. The human in human-computer interaction is not the designers or the programmers, but the users, and they have to be involved directly, rather than as cognitive or heuristic abstractions in order to effectively develop products to meet their needs.

The second key point that developed my understanding of the field which I learned from this course is that HCI about something both more and different than the development of efficient and effective user interfaces; it is about the making an engaging and enjoyable user experience. Similar to the central premise of Descartes Error by Antonio Damasio, rational thought does not provide the central definition of human experience. Human brains are built from emotion up. Similarly, the emotional experience of a user experience is an important and central element of its design. If an application does not engage users such that they want to use it, it will fail. Even if it is designed to be extremely efficient and extremely effective for users as an application, if people do not enjoy using it, and do not keep using it, then it does not succeed. And for some applications, particularly games and other entertainment functions, efficiency may be beside the point. Consider Progress Quest (www.progressquest.com), a highly efficient parody of a roleplaying game where the user does not provide input after starting the game. Judged for its humor value, I find it quite effective. But as a game, it is less than engaging. Frequently users playing a game are looking for a challenge, which generally recasts goals like efficiency and ease of use to consider what emotional experience the game is trying to invoke.

And finally, the third defining point I learned in this course is the importance of understanding your goals and designing for those goals. This issue underlies several topics, including the distinction between key performance indicators (KPIs) and metrics, the conduct of background research, and what information or interactions to emphasize in the development of a user interface. While this is an obvious consideration in any endeavor, it was important to raise the point that not all products, applications, or interfaces have the same set of goals, and that there is no one simple ideal to strive for in developing a user interface.

In addition, I learned the general types of work and issues that HCI practitioners engage with, including a more complete understanding of the range of methods employed by HCI practitioners in industry and some less explicit challenges that may be faced by practitioners in the field. I also learned which methods are more or less commonly used and the advantages and disadvantages attendant to different methods. Through this course, I obtained a better understanding of the types of tradeoffs that practitioners commonly have to make between quality, time, and money of their methods as well as the underlying principle of affordances (a term which I had not previously encountered).

I learned that HCI involves various activities, and various subspecialties. They can include activities like conducting background research, reaching out to and involving users in the development process, developing content strategy, designing services and interactions, prototyping and testing, and data visualization. It also laid out the use of developing personas, concepts, scenarios, and storyboards as tools to facilitate project communication and coordination. In addition, throughout this process, HCI professionals must not merely advocate for the users’ interests, but also advocate for the value of collecting and incorporating user feedback to products.

Through this course, I learned about the changing role of HCI activities throughout a product’s lifecycle. In particular, I had not expected or appreciated the importance of pre-design background research to get a better understanding of the space of needs for an interface to address. In addition, I had not previously considered the HCI role in iterating to new product designs based on feedback from existing products.

What HCI Topics I Want to Learn More About

I did want to learn a little more about how HCI compares to other disciplines. What I’m envisioning is a chart that compares commonly used terms both inside and outside HCI and distinguishes between them, with appropriate disclaimers about fuzzy terminology. For example, what exactly is included in information architecture, and how does it relate to information visualization? To the extent that there is a clear and meaningful distinction between interaction design and user experience design, I felt we received a good explanation of that. Recognizing that job postings and other uses of the term may contain ambiguity, I still would have found it valuable to have a clearer understanding in my own mind of what the various sub-domains of HCI are, and how they interact with other fields outside HCI (web and mobile development, product management, etc).

The class did touch on data visualization, but I thought that was a topic that would be very interesting to explore in greater depth. As presented in class, it seemed like an interesting topic, with clear relevance to user experience design, but what, if any, specialized tools to use to select particular visualizations to meet user needs would be an interesting addition to the existing course content.

How I Would Improve on our Group Project

Our group project was a user interface for a mobile speech recording and coaching application, with an included word sense disambiguation and cultural coaching function. If I could do it all over again, probably the most central point for me would be to develop a more coherent set of personas, concepts, and scenarios to guide our interface design process. In particular, I think we could have developed the concepts into a more coherent whole. While the various functionalities proposed by our interface do inter-relate, I feel like they could be more coherent. In the beginning, I did not fully appreciate the value of those documents to reach agreement on goals and later to guide the development of wireframes and prototypes.

[more detailed project and grading structure commentary redacted]

Career Path Thoughts

So, I went to a product management professionals meetup this evening. It was interesting, and as jobs go, it sounds like an interesting one to have. Of course there was terminology being thrown around that I didn’t get (thank heavens for smart phones). But I felt like I had a better sense of what was involved in product management. I don’t feel like more classroom time is really going to prepare me any better for such a career, but aside from experience, I’m not really sure what would.

And as I was sitting there, I had a thought, a feeling, that I’ve been going about the job hunt all wrong. It reminded me of when I was trying to find a roommate for my shiny new condo, and I didn’t want to get furniture. I made that decision because I thought “What if I find a roommate that has furniture? I mean, I can always get furniture once I have a roommate if I (we) need it.” I probably lost several would-have-been great roommates that way. I certainly lived in unnecessary discomfort for months. And forwent several months of rent. It was the belief that by not deciding I was leaving myself open to greater possibilities. In truth, by not deciding, by not taking action, I was probably foreclosing on more options.

I haven’t really picked any one thing I want to do. I very much enjoyed my union leadership position in large part because it was such a small organization and I wore several different hats. (I also got effusive praise, that helped.) It was very neat to have a foundational role in it as an organization as well. (Others were and remain more involved than I was before that).

So, I’ve considered a few courses for my future. 1) Stay with the government and resume a role in the union. Stable, safe, familiar. Not deeply appealing to me, really. (See the second half of the compound word on this blog). 2) Go for a well paying job in a large company doing tech something-or-other. May be doable with current qualifications, would require significant searching. With completion of grad school, probably quite doable. Would require me to pick between HCI and IS. Probably IS with a focus on product management, because it sounds like a better fit, even if it wouldn’t be quite as lucrative? 3) Actually pursue the startup idea I’ve been batting around for a couple years. Like seriously do it. Even if I totally fail to make money, the contacts and skills gained, and what I have to show in the end would be satisfying and could lead to other positions.

I’d go the startup road in a heartbeat if I had a trust fund. I do not. What I have is a mortgage. That’s like a reverse trust fund. Also, condo association fees. And other debts I owe to various parties, including my own retirement.

A speech from 180 years ago, Still relevant today

[source: http://alecstapp.wordpress.com/2013/06/27/thomas-babington-macaulays-speech-to-the-house-of-commons-on-jewish-emancipation-april-17th-1833/]

I love this speech for what it says about how human nature hasn’t changed in 180 years. The particulars of who is being discriminated against and which precise rights they are denied in what jurisdiction change. But I do not understand how someone who reads these words can’t be touched by the empathy and love for humanity contained therein. Hats off to Thomas Babington Macaulay.

… The plain truth is that my honourable friend is drawn in one direction by his opinions, and in a directly opposite direction by his excellent heart. He halts between two opinions. He tries to make a compromise between principles which admit of no compromise. He goes a certain way in intolerance. Then he stops, without being able to give a reason for stopping. But I know the reason. It is his humanity. Those who formerly dragged the Jew at a horse’s tail, and singed his beard with blazing furzebushes, were much worse men than my honourable friend; but they were more consistent than he.

The honourable Member for Oldham tells us that the Jews are naturally a mean race, a sordid race, a money-getting race; that they are averse to all honourable callings; that they neither sow nor reap; that they have neither flocks nor herds; that usury is the only pursuit for which they are fit; that they are destitute of all elevated and amiable sentiments. Such, Sir, has in every age been the reasoning of bigots. They never fail to plead in justification of persecution the vices which persecution has engendered. England has been to the Jews less than half a country; and we revile them because they do not feel for England more than a half patriotism. We treat them as slaves, and wonder that they do not regard us as brethren. We drive them to mean occupations, and then reproach them for not embracing honourable professions. We long forbade them to possess land; and we complain that they chiefly occupy themselves in trade. We shut them out from all the paths of ambition; and then we despise them for taking refuge in avarice.

My first dooring experience

Okay, so, I got doored. It happened at about 6:45pm, near the Granville stop. Having previously dodged several near-dooring experiences, I always wondered somewhat skeptically how they actually happened. I discovered today. They happen very, very quickly. One second I was biking along, just east of the L line, the next I was lying on the pavement. I got up quickly, surveyed the damage (a painful, bloody right bicep, I expect bruises soon). I yelled at the guy who had opened the door, who looked kinda scared. I’m pretty sure I told him it was “fucking criminal”, which, expletive not withstanding I believe is true in Chicago. My bike’s front wheel was bent and useless. Some dude biked past and asked if he could help. I waved him on. I took my bike east of the granville stop and locked it up against a sign. I grabbed my bag, took out a shirt, put it on, went back, and took a picture of the car, including license plate. The young lady in the passenger seat was still in the car and not looking comfortable with the attention. I crossed the street, took a picture of the side of the car. I walked back to my bike. I took pictures of the damaged bike and my injuries. I went into the train station, tapping past the turnstile with my chicago card plus. I thought better of not talking to the driver, went back to the car, arrived as he was returning to the car. I was angry and stern, but not hostile. He was extremely chagrined and apologetic. He offered to pay for anything. He said he was a new driver and that he got paid that evening. He said that he parked there all the time. I pointed out that it was an area with very heavy bike traffic since the official bike trail from the lakefront headed north includes that section. I gave him my number (which he still hasn’t used, an hour later). We shook hands. I returned to the train station. A short indian gentleman, who I believe works there (because he was in a neon vest) told me had had seen it all, that the guy hadn’t noticed me and opened the door. I waved him away. I finished my trip by train, got to Pliny’s place, took 3 ibuprofen, accepted Joe’s offer to photograph my main visible injury (a deep scratch on my right bicep), cleaned and bandaged the bigger of my two wounds, tried to file a police report by phone (311), was told that as a vehicular police report it could not be filed by phone and that I’d have to file it in person, ideally some time in the next three days. Decided to, as Mike recommended, write down the time line of events, and that is my story. Now to finish a stiff drink or three so I can sleep better this evening. This post should help me recall the events.

I wish I had collected contact info from the cyclist who offered to help and the short indian dude at the Granville station. I mean, I hate to be cynical and think that the guy who doored me won’t follow through on his word, but I have the sinking feeling that he won’t. Let this be a lesson to me. Next time I’m the victim of a criminal act, and a potential witness asks if I need help, or says they saw what happened, thank them politely and ask for their contact info. Also, don’t trust someone who could potentially be liable for harming me, and collect their info as well. Even if I already have their license plate info.

Also, getting doored sucks. Drivers, please look before you open your doors on the street.

San Fran Fun Part One

So, we landed late on Friday, and took supershuttle to our friend Bryan’s place.

Saturday was brunch with Tom at Herbivore, board game browsing, then homemade dinner with Josh and Brennan on the peninsula, before coming back and dropping by Jeremy’s Birthday drinks.

Sunday was brunch with Tom at Saturn, board games at Nathan’s, then pizza and project Runway at Tom’s with Nathaniel.

Monday I finished drafting a union survey, we had brunch with Bryan, I got new shoes (tossing the old ones in a trash can right outside the store. They were seriously worn out.) Got a week membership at the most convenient (and coincidentally gayest) gym in town, did a leg workout, met Matthew and played RFTG and then Wizard (for the first time ever), had dinner with Nathaniel at Golden Era, and called it a night. And then I sent out the union survey.

Tuesday, I started off with a transition committee meeting for the new bargaining unit with our union, worked out chest and back, grabbed lunch at herbivore, played board games (glory to rome specifically) with new folks we met through the wonders of proximity based social networking (aka scruff), bounced on trampolines with friends new, old, and just-moved-to-SF-from-Chicago, then dinner, now back home.

Themes so far for vacation: vegetarian restaurants, board games, old friends, and a few people from chicago. =)

The Value of Democracy: Asking the Right Questions

I’ve seen a few people reposting this article which claims that people aren’t smart enough to make democracy work. I wasn’t sure about the author of the study behind the article, so I did a bit of digging. Most of his work is not related to politics directly, but rather to self-evaluation of skill. And according to a UK radio interview he apparently does agree with the political application of the work. And I think they’re missing something critical, which makes the direction they’re going with this rather pointless.

Democracy, whether representative or direct, is about political decisions ultimately being made by the people affected by them, not the technical competence of elected leaders or enacted policies. “No taxation without representation” is a slogan from the pre-revolutionary and revolutionary decades of what is now the United States, and a close variant of that shows up on DC license plates. That’s not a cry for more technically competent leadership, that’s a complaint about not being involved in the decision making process. They may have wanted more technically competent leadership, but really, they wanted their needs tended to. And that is what democracy looks like. Democracy is the answer to “Let them eat cake,” not the answer to “How do we determine the optimal arrangement of taxes and services?”

Democracy is a system of political decision making, a way of resolving conflicting interests. We may aspire to perfect governance, but for that aspiration to even make sense, we have to agree on our values. And we have chosen to express those values through a generally peaceful, mostly democratic framework. While I might have ideas for how this system could be improved, those two principles at the very least seem well worth maintaining.

I agree that a more technically competent electorate would produce more technically competent leaders and decisions. I support the idea of increasing the electorate’s technical expertise, along with our freedom, security, compassion, curiosity, hope, and creativity. But I cannot support that at the cost of disenfranchisement. No matter how technically inexpert, I think citizens have a right to contribute their voice to the definition of their governance. I do not buy that there is a single “competence” factor that would magically produce better governance for all.

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