Family Feed

Photos from the John G. Cramer Symposium coming soon

The blog post I had intended to have up by now was about the University of Washington symposium in honor of my father's 50 years in physics and also his 75th birthday (which comes up next month). But I forgot my camera in Seattle and my parents had to FedEx it to me. 

Also, something really time-consuming and aggravating came up while I was on the ground in  the airport on my way back to Westport, and it has eaten my brain for the past few days as well as putting me in a really foul mood. Now that I have documented the incident and filed complaints with appropriate authorities, I am hoping that I can return to my usual state of bliss by tomorrow morning.

Anyway, in Seattle I gave a speech with a title along the lines of "Recovering Adult Children of Physicists" which I think turned out really well. The Dean's Office was video-taping, so there are a few stories I might have told that I thought better of. I took a couple hundred pictures and I need to sort through them to see which are appropriate to make freely available on Flickr. A lot of them are of people's slides during physics talks, and sometimes the fonts weren't working right. So I don't want to give the false impression that people's equations were wrong. Also, in one instance, the presenter is applying for a patent.

I hope to get these sorted through, and have something interesting for you on this topic tomorrow once I reclaim my brain from the nasty parasite that's been eating it.

Oppression, Feminism, & Motherhood

I was on several excellent panels at Anticipation which I hope to write about later, and on one panel that was hopelessly ill-construed. It was a panel on which four white people were assigned the task of discussing whether ethnic and sexual minorities ought to write for the mainstream sf audience or whether they could or should write for more specialized audiences more connected to their concerns, and if they were to do that, how would they make it into the SF canon (this last point was illustrated by a quote from Joanna Russ.).

One of the designated panelists did not attend the convention, one overslept and missed the panel by accident, so it was me and this white guy who later remarked online that he has clearly been assigned to the wrong panel. 

This was not THE most socially awkward panel assignment I've ever been given. That would be the panel entitled "Politics & Bad Manners" at a Minnicon many years ago, where as I recall one of my fellow panelists was dressed in a monk's habit, and everyone but me had known in advance that this was the annual Libertarian revival panel. I  spent the panel defending things like the existence of public sidewalks. But this pannel at Anticipation was certainly up there.

Several audience members seemed to have a lot to say on the actual topic assigned, so I invited "Ide Cyan" and a woman whose name badge said "Isobel" to join me as panelists. "Isobel" declined, but made many productive comments from the audience. "Ide Cyan" joined me on the panel, but only after anxiously showing me her name badge so I would know who I was tangling with. She tried hard as a panelist, but also was extremely tense and trembling and talking very fast, as though frightened of me. (I think that is the first time I've ever been on a panel with someone who appeared physically frighten of me.)

The panel went how it went, which is as well as could be expected given both the panelist problem and an oddly constructed mandate. (Canonicty is a completely separate issue from the economic and artistic viability of subgenres with specialized audiences.) I'm told that Jo Walton had written beautiful and lucid panel descriptions that were then mercilessly pruned by a clumsy editorial hand. I think this panel description was one of the victims.

"Ide Cyan" argued that the central issue was oppression. I attempted to get her to unpack her argument, and asked interview style questions about what she meant by oppression. Another blogger has described her as becoming "tongue-tied" when presented with this line of inquiry.

After the panel, I invited her to join me for a cup of tea for further discussion, but she declined; she and a group of other audience members, who seemed to be a portion of Fail Fandom, left as a group. According to their blogs this group went off and discussed how appalling it is that I claim to be oppressed because I am a parent and because of where I live.

Before departing, "Ide Cyan" instructed me to read Joanna Russ's book What Are We Fighting For? Sex, Race, Class, and the Future of Feminism, a book which as it happened was sitting on my night table. A while back I blogged my dismay with the opening chapter. It is a book that Joanna worked long and hard on, the book in which she intended to reconcile socialism and feminism, and which was published too late to have the impact it might have had because it took her so long to write. (Our collective recollection is that she was already working on that book when I attended the Seattle Clarion in 1984; its copyright date is 1998.)

Joanna Russ was my first science fiction mentor. She was my professor at the University of Washington for two years. I spent many happy hours taking up her office hours when everyone else was scared to talk to her. A few decades ago, I knew her pretty well. She was in chronic pain. She was on heavy-duty anti-depressants that messed up her short-term memory in ways that were sometimes comical. She is also a genius, and I treasure the time I spent sitting at her feet (sometimes literally) listening to her hold forth.

That having been said, I don't think What We Are Fighting For? works in the way she intended. In trying to reconcile socialism & feminism, she has for the most part left out the problem of motherhood and the relationship between the parent and the State. Her discussion of motherhood is extremely slight. The most extensive passage I was able to find, via index and skimming, is a mother-blaming section on the role of families in perpetuating oppression and sexism. (p. 347) Clearly, something had to go or this book never would have got finished, but I think it is unfortunate that the oppression of mothers by the State was omitted from discussion.

So what is oppression? Its definition is not one of Joanna's central concerns in this book; she is writing for an audience that thinks it already knows what oppression is. Oppression is depression — "a feeling of being oppressed"; persecution —"the act of subjugating by cruelty";  and subjugation — "the state of being kept down by unjust use of force or authority." In my daily life, I have experienced all three in connection with being a mother and it is not a minor thing. It is a major force in my life.

I seriously doubt that Joanna Russ I know would argue that I and other American mothers are not oppressed. And I wonder by what right self-described feminists discard out-of-hand claims by individual mothers that they suffer oppression.

Is 21st century feminism really feminism at all? If it has abandonded mothers as such, it has abandoned its task of advocating the liberation of women. 

Dad in New Scientist

My dad, John Cramer, was quoted in New Scientist this week in Lisa Grossman's article Expert panel urges NASA to revive futuristic think tank concerning NASA's Institute for Advanced Concepts.

Despite the current uncertainty in NASA's future plans and budget, the committee says that NIAC is still a worthwhile investment. "NIAC was efficiently run, there was no waste of money," says John Cramer, a physicist at the University of Washington and a former member of a council that reviewed NIAC projects. "NASA got an amazing amount of bang for the buck," Cramer told New Scientist.

Reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable


I realized with some sheepishness, after writing about Bruce Sterling's story "The Black Swan," that I had only read second-hand accounts of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Black Swan idea, but not his actual book of that title. So I ordered it, and now have read the book itself. A "black swan" as defined by Taleb, is an event of "rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability." Taleb is an ex-quant turned iconoclastic mathematician. This book was a bestseller, and like many best-sellers on arcane topics, it is chatty, opinionated, and a bit on the loose and sloppy side.

As I expected, I enjoyed the book a lot. His subject matter appeals both to my taste in mathematics and my aesthetic of fiction. (My favorite section of David Hartwell's The Dark Descent is The Fabulous Formless Darkenss, which is the section for what he and I call "nature of reality" horror -- stories in which the parameters of what one thought was possible usually change for the worse.)

Other than having it confirm my belief system (always a pleasure), there were two basic things I got out of reading this. 

As I told my husband (David Hartwell) while reading the book, for me this is partly a book about how David's way of doing things is right. The way David publishes books as an editor, the way he runs our small press, the way he collects books, the way he runs the family finances, etc. all tend to limit downside risks while at the same time leaving him exposed to positive Black Swans -- serendipity. (Aren't I a good wife for blogging about how I just read a book that tells me how right my husband is?)


In the second half of the book Taleb spends a lot of wordage and emotion on condemning the "intellectual fraud" of the Bell Curve. I don't really need to be able to judge whether he is correct in terms of all of his examples. But it set me thinking about standardized testing.

Last week and this week, the school district is doing extensive testing of my son, which they do every three years. (This is separate from the group standardized testing.) When my husband I meet with the district in June, we will be presented with a sheaf of paper in which, page after page, our son will be raked in terms of percentiles and numbers of standard deviations from the norm. And we will try to make sense of all this data. Again.

Years ago, I read Stephen J. Gould's The Mismeasure of Man (another book which confirmed my belief systems) and I have a deep distrust of standardized testing anyway. And yet these tests mean something, and it is of crucial importance that I understand what. In past cycles of this, I've wasted a lot of time reading up on what is meant by "processing speed" and how to understand things like the results on subtests of IQ tests. 

My son tends to produce an anomalous pattern of results on such tests, and so far no one has yet to be able to explain what this actually means, though -- who knows -- this year's tests may be different. (We expect to be having our independent expert read the results for us this time.)

So I'm reading along through Taleb's attack on the uses of the Bell Curve, and I realize that of course all of these tests are normed to Bell Curves. They wouldn't give them if they weren't. But all around me I see human attributes that do not fit that model: the ability to draw a recognizable portrait, the ability to play the piano, gender, eye color, etc. Many human differences are not meaningfully normalized to the Bell Curve.

 And so I realized there was one further aspect of what these tests measure that I need to keep in mind: that the imposition of percentiles and standard deviations on what attributes are measured may be no more realistic than contemplating a spherical cow. We somehow need to try to consider whatever we're told each of these these tests are measuring is distributed Bell-Curve-like over the population, or whether it is a different kind of thing. I find this a bit daunting, though probably worth trying.

Elizabeth's review of the inauguration

Elizabeth, who saw the inauguration with her 1st grade class, loved Aretha Franklin's rendition of "My County 'Tis of Thee." She said it was a whole lot longer than the one she she sang at school, and a lot better, too. She remarked that Franklin was old and then after thinking for a moment said she thought that people learned how to sing really a lot better as they got older.