Saturday, May 31, 2008

Movie review: "Sweeney Todd"

The story is almost Shakespearean, if not for that little deviation where Sweeney Todd and his baker girlfriend set up a rather bizarre business that leverages a perfect synergy of their respective skills. :-) Though I guess when your characters wear heavy goth makeup you can't expect them to play by the rules of classical tragedies. :-)

Their makeup also made it near impossible for me to tell them apart, at least for the first half of the movie. I think I've said before that all actors in any movie look the same to me, modulo distintive hairstyles, haircolor, beards, glasses, height, body type etc., which are visual clues I use to tell actors apart. That's true even when they are not wearing harsh black-and-white makeup! (Exceptions are actors who I've seen in at least 3-4 movies, so that their faces start to look distinct to me. So for example, if I hadn't stopped watching Harry Potter movies after the third one, I may be able to recognize its cast already ;-)) But the makeup in "Sweeney Todd" makes it hard to even tell men and women apart!

This is just one reason why I have difficulty understanding what's happening in the movies. "Sweeney Todd" made it exponentially more difficult because everybody in it spoke very quiet, very fast, and with a British accent (which is so alien to me it might as well be Chinese). This is one of those movies that gives your fingers a two-hour long workout on a remote control. When the music surges, you scramble to turn down the volume (especially when a child is sleeping upstairs). When dialogue starts, you frantically pound the buttons to turn the volume up. I don't understand what's the logic behind that. Shouldn't the dialogue be loud, while the music kept down to a non-irritating level?

Despite all this, I was surprised the plot seemed fairly cohesive to me. Except for one thing. At the very end Sweeney Todd is shattered to discover that a very important character has died. How did that character get into the basement? The last I saw of that character, he/she/it was in the barbershop. I wasn't even sure of this character's identity, but Steve (who says I am hopelessly imperceptive) assured me it had to be what it was in order for the movie to make sense. Still, he could not explain how that character got in there. So it's not just me. Either he is imperceptive too, or there is a hole in the plot.

The best thing about "Sweeney Todd" is its music. It's beautiful. The melodies are very complex. Such a beautiful reprieve from one-dimensional pop tunes. (Not that I listen to pop tunes much, but some of them infiltrate even the public radio (the only kind of radio I listen to).) If I found a legal and free download of Sweeney Todd soundtrack, I might even lift a finger to click on the link! ;-)

Saturday, May 17, 2008

An article that dredged up some memories

There is an article in New York Times about an upcoming report of a study of women's experiences in the science, technology and engineering fields.

Diversity Isn't Rocket Science, Is It?

"It's almost a time warp," said Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the founder of the Center for Work-Life Policy, a nonprofit organization that studies women and work. "All the predatory and demeaning and discriminatory stuff that went on in workplaces 20, 30 years ago is alive and well in these professions."

That is the conclusion of the center's latest study, which will be published in the Harvard Business Review in June.

Based on data from 2,493 workers (1,493 women and 1,000 men) polled from March 2006 through October 2007 and hundreds more interviewed in focus groups, the report paints a portrait of a macho culture where women are very much outsiders, and where those who do enter are likely to eventually leave.

I would sure like to read this report, if it is ever made available on the internet. It would be interesting to compare those 1493 women's stories with mine. I am lucky to be in a workplace where I haven't experienced a bias against me, despite me being one of the few women in a mostly male technical team. My previous workplace wasn't so good. While I haven't experienced any overt sexism, I ran into some subtle forms of... weirdness, a lot of which could have been attributed to gender perceptions. They were subtle enough to not evoke outrage, and to make me feel it was all my fault (which is actually my default operating assumption in many life's situations).

They were paying me -- why didn't they want me to work?

My previous workplace, a software company in Dallas, had a huge software development team of ~ 100 people, divided into many groups. I was assigned to a group that was focused mostly on R&D, rather than pedal-to-the-metal, get-the-product-out-the-door stuff. My group wrote prototypes of plugins for the company's main product (they didn't call them plugins, but that's kind of what it was -- different algorithms for doing tasks that our product did), and then the Big Brains decided which of them might be worth integrating into the company's product. Out of 10 people on this team, everybody except two people had a PhD. Most of them had spent a significant time in the academia as post-docs or professors. I was one of the two people who only had a Master's degree, and one of only two women. The other woman was a seasoned software developer, who played along very well with the rules and social norms expected in such an environment. I was, on the other hand, a complete rookie. This was my first job as a software developer, and also my first job in the US! I had no idea what to expect or how to behave.

One thing I completely did not expect is that nobody would give me any work to do. :-)

I'm serious. It became clear to me that my team lead did not see me as an available resource. Apparently, when he assigned team members to projects, I simply did not come to his mind. It was kind of like in an old detective story, the title or author of which I forgot. The mystery in it centered around the fact that there were footsteps in the snow leading to the house, yet the witness who's been at the house the whole time swore there were no visitors. It turned out, somebody had indeed come to the house: a postman (or a milkman -- details elude me). But for a member of English upper class in the beginning of the 20th century postmen and milkmen were simply not persons. So the postman flew completely under the witness's radar; when asked who came to the house, the witness did not even think to mention the postman. The same way, when thinking who to assign the work to, my boss simply did not think of me.

Feeling Kafkaesque

How was I supposed to interpret this? Was it because

(a) I didn't have a PhD like most of the group members? But then why did he take me on his group to begin with? Ostensibly it was because the research I did for my Master's thesis was related to the research his group did. Still, he knew I had only a Master's, not a PhD. If he thought this wasn't enough, he should not have taken me on.

(b) I was a woman, and therefore incompatible with a notion of a software developer?

(c) I was considered unworthy to be given a chance for some other reason?

I was so puzzled by his attitude (hey, they are paying me -- don't they want me to work?) that I (a) internalized it, assuming it was my own fault, and (b) tried to rectify the situation by repeatedly asking him to give me tasks to do. Sometimes he did, by assigning me some little research project; the problem was that when I tried to get him to review what I did and determine how to proceed further, he would never, never have time to review it. Weeks would go by, and he still would not find time.

I also asked him to give me bugs to fix in the existing code, because what's a better way to become familiar with the company's code if not by fixing bugs? And his reply literally was "there aren't that many bugs in our group code".

I just didn't know whether I should continue to "bug" him to give me work, or to give up. Since, as I said, I internalized the message that he behaved that way because something was wrong with me (women are really good at this -- at assuming everything is their fault! It's the default operating mode for many women, and I used to be no different), I gave up. I did not dare to continue to pester him. Besides, how many times could I pester him without starting to feel like an attention-starved wife being brushed off by a husband who's "just not that into her"? :-) There's this odd gender dynamics there, that wouldn't be present if both employees were the same sex.

And yet, at the meetings with the director of software development, my boss constantly complained he did not have enough developers to implement all the projects he has planned! I felt Kafkaesque. Should I wave -- hey, look at me over here! I'm not a roach on the wall! I'm a developer too! What about me? How about you give me some work? but of course I couldn't do that, as it would have been very embarrassing for all parties involved, even if it was said in the most polite form.

In retrospective I know my biggest mistake was to try to make the whole thing work, instead of going to the development director and asking him to reassign me to another team. But I could not bring myself to ask for it, because I was afraid that if I admit to the development director I haven't been doing much work, I would be shown the door! Eventually though, he and my team lead jointly decided to reassign me. And it made a big difference. My new team had concrete projects, deadlines, and -- surprise, surprise -- bugs to fix. :-)

So I don't know if this was just a weird case of a boss who's clueless about management, but I suspect he would have treated me differently if I had been a guy. When some new guys joined the team after me, he integrated them right away, giving them work to do. But he never gave me a chance to begin with, as if he simply could not imagine me being on the team. Go figure.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Robert Heinlein "The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress": book review

I read "The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress" by Robert Heinlein because it was on FACT reading group's schedule. I ended up not being able to go to the discussion, which was just as well, because I had read only 2/3rds of the book by then. Now that I've finished it, it's time to write a review. Actually, my opinion of the book had not changed much after reading the final third.

To quote from, this is a story of "revolution on the moon in 2076, where "Loonies" are kept poor and oppressed by an Earth-based Authority that turns huge profits at their expense. A small band of dissidents, including a one-armed computer jock, a radical young woman, a past-his-prime academic and a nearly omnipotent computer named Mike, ignite the fires of revolution despite the near certainty of failure and death. "

Ideas: interesting. Characters that spout them: rather flat.

I liked the story, though I wasn't too impressed by characters. The characters are believable, but perhaps too simple for my taste. The radical young woman, Wyoming, and the Professor are more or less cardboard cutouts. The only reason for Wyoming's existence seems to be to make rash, immature statements so as to give the Professor a chance to say: "no, dear lady, we can't do that, here's why..." and then expound on one of his theories. But I didn't mind because his theories were quite interesting. It was worth reading the book just for them. It was interesting to see how Luna's revolutionaries put those theories into practice. I was intrigued to find out what kind of leverage the Loonies will find in their negotiation with Earth. Luna's economically and technologically disadvantaged position should have made it near impossible, and yet they found it. That was interesting. Still the story would have pulled me along much better if there was some character development, some interpersonal drama.

Exquisite worldbuilding, based on shaky premises

To me the most interesting aspect of this book was Heinlein's portrayal of Lunar society. The community of Luna started out as a penal colony. At the time period the story is set in, Earth has been shipping its criminals to the Moon for many decades. Over several generations the Lunar population came to consist mostly of descendants of the original "settlers", with an influx of new convicts constantly trickling in. Since most convicts were men, the initial demographics of the Lunar population suffered from a huge gender imbalance; even after all those decades men still outnumbered women 2:1. This society has no laws; rules of behavior are enforced by nothing more than people's mutual consent.

The book is sprinkled through with little incidents that help us get a feel for Lunar reality. For example, there is the episode where the protagonist, Manuel, is asked to be a judge in a dispute between a bunch of local boys and a visitor from Earth. I found it very exotic, since it is unimaginable to us that a dispute involving possible capital punishment might be left for any random citizen to arbitrate. While those episodes had an authentic feel (possibly because of Lunar slang used heavily throughout the book), they did not convince me a society could function without laws. Heinlein's explanations of how such a society works are a bit too simplistic. For example, he says: who needs laws to enforce contracts, when a person's reputation should be sufficient? I think while fear of loss of reputation might work in very small societies, in bigger societies it is impossible for everyone to have accurate knowledge of everyone else's reputation. As far as allowing random citizens to act as judges and make arbitrary rulings not based in any laws, there is so much room for abuse of power. I think what would have happened in a completely anarchist society (especially one that was made up primarily of criminals), is that this society would have devolved into a dictatorship of gangs. I also don't believe women would have enjoyed a special status because they were a minority. I don't think men would leave all the freedom of choice to women and quietly abide by women's decisions. Most likely they would put women in burqas, lock them up, and sell and trade them like chattel.

So, Heinlein's picture of an anarchist paradise seems quite unrealistic to me. Another dubious premise on which the book is based is that a sentient computer (Mike) would remain in service of people who think millions of times slower than he. Wouldn't he find human affairs to be intolerably tedious? Wouldn't such a computer pursue goals of its own, which may differ greatly from humans' goals?

Overall, "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" is an interesting speculation about societies and revolutions, though I didn't find it convincing. But it's easy to sympathize with a story of a small, ostensibly powerless entity like Luna breaking free from an immensurably more powerful authority. To pull it off required no small amount of cleverness. All in all a worth read.

(As an aside, I really like the main character's manner of speech in which he often drops pronouns, articles and auxiliary verbs. I loved the Lunar slang too, it's quite charming. It gave the harsh setting an oddly cozy feel.)

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Parenting Beyond Belief: a Dale McGowan seminar

Dale McGowan gave a seminar "Parenting Beyond Belief", hosted by the Center For Inquiry in Austin on May 3, 2008. A lot of things he said were common sense advice for secular parenting. Expose your children to as many religions and myths as you can. Talk about baby Jesus in the same breath as about baby Hercules. Don't shield them from religious ideas, because if you do, some day in their teens they'll hit a confidence crisis and may be receptive to their peers' suggestion to seek help in Jesus. Let them hear all sorts of religious stories, so that no one religion will seem uniquely believable.

Interestingly, Dale McGowan is the second person (the first was Nica Lalli) who said that their kid, when told the story of birth of Jesus, said, wait, wait, I know this story -- God came down from above and put a baby in a woman -- that's Life of Brian! (Hmm. It makes me wonder if I'm showing my daughter the right movies. ;-))

Dale McGowan. More pictures from various Center For Inquiry events can be found in my photo gallery.

It must be said that despite exposing his children to all sorts of myths, there are two religious notions Dale McGowan does not give equal air time to: the concept of hell (because it has a potential to scare young children very badly), and demonization of doubt (as in, you are only a good person if you don't question authority). He says he wants his kids to develop these three things: an ability to think well (critical thinking), self confidence, and a deep love of reality. If they develop these 3 things, they probably won't seek comfort in the supernatural.

When his 9-year-old daughter came home from school and said three of her friends told her she's gonna burn in hell, his stomach sank. He asked the daughter, how did it make you feel? She said, bad, but also silly. She already thought burning in hell was unlikely. Exposure to many religious ideas over the years inoculated her against fear of hell.

So, common sense advice. But the way he says it is very entertaining. He has a ton of wonderful little phrases and anecdotes to illustrate his point.

Who will lay a blankie on my grave?

It is tradionally thought that it's the role of religion to address questions of death and morality.

Regarding death, Dale McGowan's position is this. If you want your child to develop a love of reality, you need them to consider the question of death. The fact that our life ends is the most profound fact of our existence, rivaled only by the idea that it begins. Engaging with this fact can lead with the most profound engagement with life. We need to talk with kids about death as if it is normal, which it is. A 150 years ago this wasn't a problem; all children were exposed to death. And children won't have trouble accepting the notion of death if they are told about it early, because we have a limitless ability to accept the weirdest things as normal, if they are presented to us in the daily life.

"Here's a strange thing we accept as normal, says Dale. "We emerge into the world from our mothers. My mother is visiting us in Atlanta right now. I'm having coffee with my portal to the world. And I think it's normal, whereas the whole time I should be..." (his jaw hits the floor in an exaggerated expression of astonishment).

"So when a young child asks "who will put my blankie on my grave when I die?" don't start bawling "you're not gonna die!" If you do, you are not respecting their question. And the 4-year-old was not even crying when she asked that question! She just wanted to know. So I assured her I'll be the one to do that."

Teaching kids morality the secular way

Then there is the concept of a child's moral development -- another area where religion is widely considered indispensable. Dale says questions of morality are no harder for atheist parents than for religious parents, simply because those questions are hard for everybody, including religious people. It's just that secular parents have a different set of tools for addressing those questions.

We know a lot about moral development, says Dale. No matter whether kids go to church or don't, most kids reliably hit the salient points of moral understanding at about the same age. There are small exceptions for children who had experienced childhood neglect, such as in orphanages. In those cases they reach that understanding later, but not by much.

There is one exception. If kids are raised in an authoritarian moral situation -- if they are told to act a certain way because mom or dad says so, God says so, police says so -- it impedes their moral development. So instead of appealing to an authority such as God, you teach the child about consequences of their immoral behavior. For example, when his 6-year-old hit a lying phase (which happens when children develop a "theory of the mind" and suddenly realize that other people may not necessarily know everything, so it's possible to lie to them!) he asked her: you know why is lying bad? Because next time I won't trust you. Next time she said she washed her hands, he said, but you lied to me yesterday, so now I'll have to check.

Also, according to development psychologists, it is important to tie identity to morality, says Dale. So you tell children: I know you are an honest person, and your lying doesn't make any sense, it's out of character for you. Children become protective of who they are. If they self-identify as an honest person, they don't want to violate the sense of what they are.

There were many more things he said, which I have to omit, because I didn't take very thorough notes. He seasoned his talk with many funny personal stories. It all made for a memorable seminar.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Overheard at the ArmadilloCon programming brainstorming meeting

At the yesterday's ArmadilloCon programming brainstorming meeting, people were asked to come up with ideas for discussion panels, also indicating who they think would be good on that panel. No ideas were off limits, except totally unrealistic ones -- don't come up with an idea that requires a presence of a person who certainly won't be there So for example, a panel on Pirates with Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley won't be considered. An interview with a dead writer wouldn't work either. To which K replied: why, we could have a "seance fiction" panel with Arthur C. Clarke!