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Saturday, 31 March 2007


This article (which I found via 3QD) fascinates me. It's about the story of Natascha Kampusch, the girl who was imprisoned by her abductor for eight and a half years. I'm not sure if it's right in saying that the reason people find the story so fascinating is because it's a prime example of the romantic love story (man pursues woman, cannot bear to be without her, etc) gone wrong. Personally, the first question that came into my mind was to wonder how you would recover from the way that such isolation could stilt your social development. What strikes me about the article is the bare-faced way it states the darker side of the archetype of passionate love. It's so true. So very, very true: "love" - passionate attraction - makes people selfish. Don't I know it. In fact, I suspect that a lot of people know this; I can't be the only person to have experienced it directly. But how often do you hear it said?

And how do you distinguish "good" love from "bad"? Is it a matter of the other person being capable of keeping all of their selfishness in check? Or is it simply a matter being able to keep as much selfishness in check as the object of your love currently requires? In other words, if she can't bear to be away from you, either, does it matter that you would end up acting like a jerk if she didn't feel that way?

It used to really bother me that, if I fell in (mutual) love with a man, that might just mean that the only reason he wasn't treating me badly was because I loved him back. It bothers me less these days because I've met enough decent men to believe that there's actually a fairly good chance that this wouldn't be the case :-)

EDIT: And yes, I did worry that I might come to behave that way myself. Certainly I have no doubt that women are capable of being selfish and obsessive in their love. All I can say is that when it came to the crunch, I passed. My respect to all those who can say the same.

Thursday, 22 March 2007

Celebration of Female Desire Week

Cassandra says this is celebration of female desire week. So I thought I'd weigh in, in my own way.

It's an unfortunate fact that there are still sexual ideas out there that degrade women, that suggest that men have the most to gain from sex while women, somehow, have something to lose. It's an unfortunate fact that, while a little objectification in the form of being desired isn't harmful of itself, the extent to which women are held up as objects of desire rather than as people who desire is entirely out of proportion. It's an unfortunate fact that women still suffer from sexual violence, even if the rate of sexual assaults seems to be decreasing. And there are some who react to this by saying "stop having sex", or who denounce particular sex acts as inherently patriarchal. Sometimes they stress that it is impossible to do anything in a patriarchal society without being subject to the connotations that society attaches to particular acts. As a result, if "patriarchy says" it's degrading, it's degrading. You can't avoid it.

Well, sorry, but that's defeatist! It makes it sound like the dreaded "patriarchy" can revoke any claims you might have for strong, sexual womanhood with a single touch. I dare to claim that "patriarchy" does not have that power. I can still be strong, be whole, be a woman even if I have sex within a society that contains sexual ideas that degrade women. Indeed, finding ways to stay strong and whole under such conditions is the only way I can see of changing those attitudes. Let's not underestimate our power to resist those ideas, even if they are held by those around us - indeed, even if they still lurk in our own subconscious. Even if a man thinks he is using me, I can still be a strong woman. Even if I choose to do something perceived as an act of submission, I can still be a strong woman. And if enough of us succeed in being strong, and if we can show that to others, we will change the definitions. And if we make mistakes and fail to be strong, as all of us do from time to time, well, show your strength by being willing to take the occasional risk and picking yourself up when you fall.

Let's face it, if patriarchy forces all those of us with no convenient homosexual tendencies to hide away in extreme sexual frustration because we can't have sex with men without supporting the patriarchy, then we're not winning. We're losing, big time.

Monday, 12 March 2007

Laughing at Luskin

At Pharyngula, PZ Myers reports on this review by Casey Luskin of a book I haven't read but that looks mighty interesting: The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution, by Sean Carroll. Casey Luskin is a major figure from the Discovery Institute, which, in case you didn't know, houses all those Intelligent Design people who go around attempting to discredit evolution.

PZ found it excruciating:

I skimmed it in short sessions punctuated with bouts of whimpering, eye drops, and obsessive hand-washing; you'll have to forgive me if I don't attempt a thorough dissection.

Fear not, PZ! To the intelligent non-biologist reader who has not had to suffer this sort of garbage before, the report is a scream. I've been giggling all over the place. See, I've been learning all manner of stuff that contradicts Luskin's claims just by reading the parts of the book that he quotes. Like this bit, quoted on page 9 of the review:

The possibilities for building species trees based upon DNA, RNA, and protein sequences were quickly recognized by scientists (such as Francis Crick, Emile Zuckerlandl, and Linus Pauling), as soon as protein sequencing began to reveal the similarities and differences in proteins shared among groups of species. … Darwin described the geneology of species as trees, with speciation producing ramifying branches. But in the world of microbes, unknown to Darwin, some events happen that violate the pattern of treelike evolution. Microbes exchange genes, and some microbes live within the host species in a process called endosymbiosis. These processes enable the transfer of genes between very distant relatives, and thus confuse the family tree. - Sean Carroll, TMoTF, page 85 if Luskin's credentials as a lawyer have given him the ability to at least quote the page number correctly.

Get this: here's a biological way for the genes of a species to change in a new way. But Luskin quotes it as evidence against evolution. Specifically, against the idea that we can sort species into evolutionary trees. Because, obviously, if natural, random, non-designed changes happen that don't fit the tree format, then, er... there must have been a designer?

Luskin seems to think that any evidence that contradicts even a tiny part of the picture can somehow bring down the whole - even if it's just a small alteration in one corner that can be fitted in to the rest of the picture with perfectly consistent changes. He's mad. But then, he is trying to say that "neo-Darwinism" is a religion. Perhaps he thinks he has finally found the scientific equivalent of that bit in 1 Kings chapter 7 that implies that pi = 3. The trouble is, of course, that every scientific theory is subject to change; we keep them because (or, if...) they accurately describe the stuff we know.

On the other hand, that book by Carroll sounds really interesting. Maybe I should read it.

Friday, 9 March 2007

Carnival of Mathematics #3

The third Carnival of Mathematics is up on Michi's Blog, including a submission from yours truly.

Tuesday, 6 March 2007

The Dove Advertising Campaign

Via Pandagon, I've been reading Seth Stevenson's two reviews on Slate of Dove's "Campaign For Real Beauty" advertising. My reaction to the first "Real Beauty" advertisement I saw was approval of the sentiment, closely followed by basic distrust of advertising. They're doing it to sell stuff. That's all there is to it. People who selflessly promote these ideas out of genuine concern are the ones who take real credit for any good done by the advertising campaign; in furthering the message, Dove is just cashing in on the sentiment that has been created thereby.

However, I was originally also suspicious that the inevitable need to portray some kind of beauty, even if irregularities are allowed, would mean that the images might end up subtly undermining the message. I'm not about to trust that an image is good for women just because it says it is. Stevenson's unfavourable critiques have improved my view of the advertising strategy considerably. He says:

When I first saw one of these smiley, husky gals on the side of a building, my brain hiccupped. Something seemed out of place. Here I was, staring at a "big-boned" woman in her underwear, but this wasn't an Adam Sandler movie, and I wasn't supposed to laugh at her. It felt almost revolutionary.

Wow! He got some practice at not laughing at fat girls? Seriously, that's awesome. I mean it. I never even considered that side of the campaign - that men would end up being forced to consider that the definition of beauty might be broader than you think. It seems to have worked, too:

I even have a favorite Dove chick: Stacy (the student). She's the one who poses with her backside to the camera, showing off her ample bottom. I see Stacy every day—she's on the bus stop shelter next to my house. "Check out this fiiiiiiiine bedonkadonk," she seems to say to me, grinning slyly over her shoulder. I think I may have a crush on her. But I've said too much already.

He can't be making all of this up, right? So he's actually thinking of her as sexy, even if he does say that her bottom is 'ample' (It's not. To have a smaller bottom without being noticeably skinny, you'd have to be a man - perhaps the femininity of it forms part of the appeal?).

Alas, his intellectual thinking appears to be less healthy than his sexual reactions on this one. His initial reaction is that advertising like this won't work long-term. Sooner or later, he says, they will have to go back to making women feel inadequate in order to sell things.

[I]n the end, you simply can't sell a beauty product without somehow playing on women's insecurities.

Well, sooner or later, maybe Dove will try a different tack - but I'm betting on later. As Stevenson notes,

Dove's sales have been up since it began.

The campaign won't stop before the effect stops, not if the people making the decision are sensible. The simple fact of the matter is that a lot of women buy beauty products to make themselves feel good. It's a way of telling yourself you're special. "Campaign for Real Beauty" is actually only a few steps away from "Because I'm Worth It" - but the Dove campaign lets you feel good about the way you're helping all those other women and girls, as well as letting you feel good because your skin feels clean, or you look a bit prettier, or just because there's been a lot of advertising that promotes the idea of feeling pampered after you've used some sort of beauty product. Beauty has been a "feel good" thing for as long as I can remember, and a "feel good" advertising campaign fits right in.

Part of the reason Stevenson is so far off the mark on this one must surely be because he could never have written the paragraph I wrote above - it requires an understanding of feminine culture which I'm sure he doesn't have. More tellingly, he seems to be allowing his own prejudices into his assessment of an advertising campaign that isn't aimed at him in the first place:

It uses a cheap video camera and murky lighting, and stars an average-looking woman being filmed as she takes a shower. The result bears a queasy resemblance to amateur pornography—though I'm told that even bargain-basement porn features flashier production values and more compelling actresses.

It doesn't look like porn to me. In fact, I'd hazard a teeny-weeny guess that women are less likely than men to automatically associate a naked woman in the shower with porn - particularly when the clip demurely restricts itself to pictures showing no hint of T or A. No, the trouble is that Stevenson expects a hot naked woman, and doesn't understand that this picture isn't aiming for envy - it's aiming for identification, which has got to be another common advertising tactic, right?

So, should we go out of our way to buy their stuff? I have to say, I'm glad that Dove is getting encouragement. If Stevenson's reactions are anything to go by, we need more advertisements like this, whatever the motives behind them. And, as one of the commenters at Pandagon noted, what we're really looking at is a choice between a company that cold-heartedly pushes women's self esteem, and a whole lot of other companies that will just as cold-heartedly set out to make women feel inadequate. So if their soap costs 10p more, I might buy it anyway. Consider it 10p towards bribing the market to work constructively on a social issue for once.

Saturday, 3 March 2007


My friend and dearest, I cannot believe
as you request; we are condemned this day
to unrelenting sacrifice of love.

My heart rebels and snaps “Get up and leave!
I love the truth!” and though I’d like to stay,
my friend and dearest, I cannot believe.

I barely know how best to be alive,
untied from you. My self begins to fray
- an unrelenting sacrifice of love.

But even now, it does no good to slave
at changing what I am, and though I pray,
my friend and dearest, I cannot believe.

And, strand by strand, I find new ways to live
and life in its variety will play
on, unrelenting: sacrificing love.

It’s not enough to fit like hand and glove.
That fate could strike us at the heel this way!
My friend and dearest, I cannot believe
this unrelenting sacrifice of love.

Thursday, 1 March 2007

Time as the Fourth Dimension

I fully intend to go off on a lovely tangent about mathematics and intuition one of these days. Until then, though, Alon's reaction to my post about how mathematicians deal with more than three dimensions brings up a point that is interesting in light of the other thing people always ask when the subject of four dimensions comes up.

Alon points out that, once you start describing four dimensions in terms of four co-ordinates, the justification for calling your extra co-ordinate an extra dimension follows largely from the fact that you get some sort of four-dimensional geometry thereby. Most geometrical notions in two and three dimensions generalise in obvious ways to the case with four or more dimensions.

Length is defined using Pythagoras’s theorem, and angle is defined using inner products. Linear transformations are defined by the more easily generalized property that T(v1 + v2) = T(v1) + T(v2) and T(kv) = kT(v), which coincides with the more concrete definition in two dimensions.

Because of what I am about to say, I'm going to note here that "linear transformations" include particularly nice geometrical notions like rotations and reflections as well as things which bend, stretch and squash shapes in well-defined ways.

Now, The Question.

What's with relativity and that whole "time is the fourth dimension" thing?

Well, there's one obvious answer. If a particle is situated in a particular place at a particular time, you can write the particle's position in space and time using four co-ordinates (x, y, z, t). Four co-ordinates, four dimensions - but that's not all there is to it. After all, you could have written the particle's position using four co-ordinates in that fashion well before the special theory of relativity had ever been dreamed of. What is it about relativity that makes this viewpoint suddenly relevant?

The word "relativity" refers to the notion that the way we define our co-ordinates is relative. For example, I might say that the point (0, 0, 0) in the usual three-dimensional space refers to the lower left hand corner of my computer screen. You might, instead, choose to say that the point (0, 0, 0) refers to the lower left hand corner of your computer screen. It shouldn't matter whether we number our points with my system or your system - the geometry (or physics) is the same. Where we put the zero point is just a matter of how you describe it. Similarly, you might say that the x axis points directly in front of you - or you might say that the x axis points directly to your right. It doesn't matter which way you define it (ignore the fact that the rotation of the Earth is going to make your co-ordinate system rotate - in other circumstances we might want to avoid that, but this is just an example).

There are well-defined mathematical ways of getting from one co-ordinate system to another. Not coincidentally, they often involve linear transformations - for example, going from the system where the x axis points straight in front of you to the system where it points directly to your right involves a rotation.

Before special relativity, time was basically exempt from these sorts of co-ordinate changes. Oh, you could define the moment at which t = 0 in different ways, but that was about it. Rotating some of your space so that it points in the time direction would just be stupid - or so you would think. In special relativity, though, that is almost exactly what you do. Depending on how fast you are travelling, and in which direction, you get a bit of space in your time direction. The linear transformation involved isn't a rotation, though, so time is not just the same as all the other co-ordinates. Thus, special relativity does not allow you to turn your time all the way around so that it goes backwards, in the same way that you can rotate your x axis so that it points in the opposite direction. However, the similarity to co-ordinate changes in three-dimensional geometry is visible enough that the idea of time as the fourth dimension as a consequence of relativity has stuck.