Wednesday, January 19, 2011

How a disciplinary paradigm teaches us to see and not see

I read two articles today back-to-back, though they came from different sources. They represented completely different world views and the conceptual distance between their respective disciplinary paradigms was breathtaking.

The first article came to me via a regular email from the IEEE Computer Society. It was by Phillip Laplante on cultural factors in software development. The article discusses Geert Hofstede's work on five dimensions of social norms that could be used to characterize any culture. These dimensions are power distance index (PDI), individualism (IDV), masculinity (MAS), uncertainty avoidance (UAI), and long-term orientation (LTO). Each of these dimensions exemplified by choices in software process, for instance:

Are software engineers in low-LTO countries more likely to favor a code-and-fix approach to formal methods? Are software engineers in high-LTO countries more likely to favor spending more time on requirements engineering and less on testing?

Laplante is part of a task force charged with developing a professional licensure examination for software engineering. Consequently, he is wrestling with the question of whether it is reasonable to have the same exam in every region. His interest in Hofstede's work is driven by the desire to be culturally sensitive. He gave data for five countries and asks questions such as:

Would software engineers in Malaysia (PDI = 104) use fewer techniques (such as reviews) that require higher management participation than in Ireland (PDI = 28)? How widely are group reviews (and the concomitant criticism) used in the US, where individualism is high (IDV = 91) versus in India (IDV = 48)?

I wasn't especially interested in the work on the licensure exam, but I was intrigued by the Hofstede dimensions. I thought it was pretty interesting that culture could be distilled down to five dimensions and wondered how I could use this in my research.

The second article was forwarded to me by a colleague. It was a news article from the Program in Human Rights at Stanford University on a talk by a faculty member, Kentaro Toyama on ten myths about technology and development.

There is a lot of interest right now in humanitarian technology, and information and computational technologies for development (ICT4D). At the last CHI conference, there was a notable number of papers on this topic. Also, I co-authored a paper with Don Patterson on this topic.

Each one of Toyama's myths resonated with me, so it's hard to choose favorites, but here are a few.

Myth 3: ‘Needs' are more pressing than desires: A high proportion of the income of the very poor goes on what Western observers might view as ‘luxury' items: (music, photos, festivals & weddings) rather than ‘basics' such as healthcare.

Myth 6: ICT undoes the problem of the rich getting richer: In contexts where literacy and social capital are unevenly distributed, technology tends to amplify inequalities rather than reduce them. An email account cannot make you more connected unless you have some existing social network to build on.

Myth 8: Automated is always cheaper and better: Where labor is cheap and populations are illiterate, automated systems are not necessarily preferable. Greater accuracy may be another reason to favor voice and human mediated systems.

Toyama caused me to seriously re-assess my reaction to the first article. There's no way that Hofstede's dimensions would help anyone trying to make their way in or design for the developing world that Toyama described. Laplante's article belied an engineering mind set, where people are instruments, i.e. operators of machines and machine processes, who are in turn instruments of the machine. Toyama's myths belied a humanist mind set, where people are fully-fledged autonomous individuals who live in a context.

As a positivist, Hofstede is trying to look for rules and generalizations about people. He's trying to turn them into abstractions in a model, which can then be used to reason with. Furthermore, he's turning the context into an input.

In contrast, Toyama is exquisitely sensitive to people as individuals in a context. Context is all. He's trying to get you to really see what's there, rather than your preconceived notions (or your model) tell you should be there.

It occurred to me if you take either point of view, you would never see the other, because of the blinders inherent in each. An engineering viewpoint is what gives rise to the misconceptions that are Toyama's myths. By the same token, someone with a humanist viewpoint working in context-specific ICT4D would never arrive at a set of five dimensions for characterizing national cultures.

So, is one viewpoint (engineering vs. humanist) better than another? Part of me is very uncomfortable with looking at people and machines merely as instruments. I am much happier looking at people as loving-feeling-dreaming-jumping persons. But at the same time, I'm not sure that poets would design the best technology.

The solution is to be multi- or inter-disciplinary. Becoming steeped or indoctrinated into more than one discipline allows one to see the limitations and assumptions built in each disciplinary paradigm. I often say that asking someone to describe their own culture is like asking a fish to describe water. If you've never been out of your culture or water, you'd never see it.

This sentiment is echoed in a blog post that I also read today by Jim Coplien where he writes about the relationship between (software) engineering and the arts. "Cope" takes the middle ground and argues for the importance of both. I'll let him have the last word.

You can’t study everything, but conquering complexity requires first a human outlook, then a social perspective, and finally a grounding in the arts. A good liberal arts education can raise your awareness about the human side of the world and about what matters to people. A grounding in user experience why the design of a computer interface (or any machine interface) is important and why it is hard. Psychology has everything to do with good computer system design. Literature and history can offer you cultural perspectives that make it easier to work into a shrinking world market. Architecture can help you articulate the complexity of design.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Liberal government representative shot by lone gun man

A moderate politician who supported progressive policies was shot by a lone gunman at a busy local market last week. No, I'm not talking about Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, but Salmaan (or Salam) Taseer.

Taseer was governor of Punjab province in Pakistan. He was a moderate Muslim in country that is becoming dominated by religious extremists. He was an opponent of Pakistan's Blasphemy Law, which forbids blasphemy against Islam. The law has become an excuse for a witch hunt against "troublesome" officials and neighbors alike. Since the allegation of blasphemy is sufficient to bring about harassment, attacks, and riots, the law is often used to intimidate moderates and non-Muslims. Even a false accusation can lead to someone losing their job, their home, or worse. Taseer sought the pardon of a Pakistani Christian woman who had been convicted under this law.

The gunman was Taseer's own security guard, apparently encouraged by clerics who criticized any opposition or leniency toward the Blasphemy law. The shooting occurred on January 4, 2011 at Kohsar Market, a shopping centre in Islamabad. Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, said in an interview with the BBC,

"[Taseer] shares a vision of Pakistan that is liberal, that is tolerant, that is inclusive. Unfortunately, he has been gunned down by those with a totally different vision of Pakistan, a theocratic vision, a narrow vision, a vision that conflates blasphemy with a man-made law and wanting to change it...

He has been assassinated not just by an individual, but by the entire movement that basically tries to play up the emotions of Pakistanis rather than telling them the facts, and that tries to say to them that anyone who questions a law made by human beings a few years ago, critizing the law is somehow the same is, God forbid, insulting the holy prophet of Islam. I think those people are responsible, the lone gunman, or conspiracy or plot will come out in the police investigation. For now, let us focus on the two conflicting visions for Pakistan, the theocratic and the democratic."

The similarities to Gabrielle Giffords' shooting are eerily similar. Both Giffords and Taseer were moderates. Both were shot at a market. Both shooters used a very large number of bullets, emptying magazines. Taseer was killed, but Giffords is now in critical condition in the hospital. The motives of Giffords' shooter are still unclear, but it's safe to say that he had a different vision for the government.

Coincidentally, I wrote about the Montreal Massacre recently. There, too, a gunman killed many innocent people for what they represented. I think my characterization of the killer from that incident also fits these two cases: an individual who had his own personal, psychological problems, whose desire to kill was fed by rhetoric around him. Giffords' shooter was creepy and seemed to fueled angry anti-government movement that sees conspiracies everywhere, such as government brainwashing and validity of Barack Obama's citizenship. I haven't read anything about the mental state of Taseer's killer, but the fact that the governor was shot 29 times speaks to a certain amount of rage and overkill. This killer was clearly influenced by a prominent movement in Pakistan seeking to create a theocratic state. The strength of this movement is evident in the hordes of people raining rose petals down on the alleged killer. Fortunately, the US has not sunk to this level, though there is a lot of inflammatory rhetoric going around.

My point in drawing these parallels is not that we live in a scary world full of crazies, but that people are the same all over and that they only way out is tolerance, inclusion, and just peace. Every tragedy seems uniquely horrifying. We want to strike back at the cause, to hurt as much as we have been hurt. But this response only fuels the cycle of hatred and violence. It's no use to annihilate one form of intolerance only to replace it with another form, to get rid of "them" and replace it with "us." I don't want to sound like a Pollyanna who says "Why can't we get along?", but the only way to stop hate is through personal choice. We as individuals have to make an active choice to be open minded, to learn, to ask questions, and to find ways to we make room for people who are different from us, whether those differences are religion, politics, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or any other source of categories.

Friday, January 7, 2011

What did Solomon know about motherhood anyways?

There is a famous story in the Hebrew Bible about how Solomon adjudicated a dispute between two women both claiming rights to a child. The story is intended to show how wise Solomon was.

1 Kings 3:16-28 (New International Version, ©2010)

A Wise Ruling

16 Now two prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. 17 One of them said, “Pardon me, my lord. This woman and I live in the same house, and I had a baby while she was there with me. 18 The third day after my child was born, this woman also had a baby. We were alone; there was no one in the house but the two of us.
19 “During the night this woman’s son died because she lay on him. 20 So she got up in the middle of the night and took my son from my side while I your servant was asleep. She put him by her breast and put her dead son by my breast. 21 The next morning, I got up to nurse my son—and he was dead! But when I looked at him closely in the morning light, I saw that it wasn’t the son I had borne.”

22 The other woman said, “No! The living one is my son; the dead one is yours.”

But the first one insisted, “No! The dead one is yours; the living one is mine.” And so they argued before the king.

23 The king said, “This one says, ‘My son is alive and your son is dead,’ while that one says, ‘No! Your son is dead and mine is alive.’”

24 Then the king said, “Bring me a sword.” So they brought a sword for the king. 25 He then gave an order: “Cut the living child in two and give half to one and half to the other.”

26 The woman whose son was alive was deeply moved out of love for her son and said to the king, “Please, my lord, give her the living baby! Don’t kill him!”

But the other said, “Neither I nor you shall have him. Cut him in two!”

27 Then the king gave his ruling: “Give the living baby to the first woman. Do not kill him; she is his mother.”

28 When all Israel heard the verdict the king had given, they held the king in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice.

This story, and the interpretation of it, drives me nuts. It feels very unfair and imposes a very narrow view of how a mother should be have. It emphasized the self-sacrificing aspect of motherhood and makes this an expectation of all "good" mothers. Why is it not possible for a "real" mother to prefer that her child die than go to some one else? Someone who might not be a good mother, such as a child abuser or drug addict? At the same time, I would be very sympathetic to a mother who has been looking after a demanding, colicky baby and has become completely fed up with the situation. Long term sleep deprivation (I'm talking months here, not days or weeks) is a nasty thing. I could see King Solomon's offer to divide the child in half being the last straw-- "You want him? Fine. Take him."

It would be more productive for all concerned to think of "mother" as a verb, and not just a noun. Mother, the noun, is like a job title. It’s static. Once you give birth, adopt, foster, or marry into a child, you are given this label. It does not say anything about how, or even if, you fulfill any of the duties of the position.

Mother, the verb, is an action that needs to be performed over and over. It’s a process that needs to be sustained on a daily basis. You do this by caring for and nurturing someone, by paying close attention to their emotional, physical, spiritual, and intellectual needs.
Some of us have a mother (the noun), who isn’t very good at mothering (the verb). Maybe they were too young or immature when they had us. Perhaps they may were struggling with their own demons of mental illness or addiction. Or they were in need of a mother themselves. For people like us, Mother’s Day can be awkward and bittersweet.

Some of us have people in our lives who are good at mothering, but aren’t necessarily mothers (the noun). We may have had a relative, teacher, or neighbor who looked after us when we needed it. Men can mother too. The stay-at-home dad in my family is proof of that.

So, what did Solomon know about motherhood anyways? Did he give birth to a child? Was he responsible for the care and feeding of a child on a daily basis? How many nights has King Solomon stayed up walking the floors with a baby who won't stop crying? There is little historical evidence to answer these questions definitively. But it would be fair to answer in the negative. Raising children tended to be women's work and not in the job description for a royal prince. (To be fair, not necessarily work for a royal princess or queen, either.)

So did Solomon get it right? We don't know. But if Solomon were alive today and making judgments using the same categories, it's more than likely that he wouldn't have. It's not as easy to be wise, when you're not living in a narrative, people are not stereotypes, and categories are in flux.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Patriarchy is the enemy, not men or other women

There is a well-known phrase, "The personal is political." It is often used, but not well understood, and often not used correctly. It is often used to refer to the idea that personal issues become important in political campaigns. (Remember the "values voters" who helped to decided the 2004 presidential election?) The "political" in the phrase actually refers to power and the structures that perpetuate existing power relationships. The "personal" in the phrase refers to problems that women are encountering in their daily lives. Taken as a whole, the phrase is intended to say that women have problems that are personal, such as inequality in the workplace, finding good daycare, imbalances in household chores, and sexual violence, are actually caused by the political system. A blogger, Winter, from the Cardiff Feminist Network explains:

The theory that women are not to blame for their bad situations is crucial here because women have always been told that they are unhappy or faring badly in life because they are stupid, weak, mad, hysterical, having a period, pregnant, frigid, over-sexed, asking for it etc. The personal is political proposes that women are in bad situations because they experience gendered oppression and massive structural inequalities.

"The personal is political" came from an essay of the same name by Carol Hanisch, written in 1969. She was working (at subsistence wages) for the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF) as a community organizer. She was using a technique called "consciousness raising," which involved a group of women discussing their personal problems, realizing that these were problems encountered by other women, and seeing the politics underlying their common problems. Consciousness raising was often perceived as "therapy" or worse, brainwashing women into militancy. Hanisch's essay was a memo back to SCEF defending the use of the technique. Later that year, the memo was published as part of an anthology of feminist writing and given the now-famous title.

There are other ideas in the essay that are not as well remembered, because they are more difficult to embrace. Hanisch also argues that feminism needs to be more tolerant and inclusive of multiple models of how to be women. She wrote:

One more thing: I think we must listen to what so-called apolitical women have to say—not so we can do a better job of organizing them but because together we are a mass movement. I think we who work full-time in the movement tend to become very narrow. What is happening now is that when non-movement women disagree with us, we assume it’s because they are “apolitical,” not because there might be something wrong with our thinking. Women have left the movement in droves. The obvious reasons are that we are tired of being sex slaves and doing shitwork for men whose hypocrisy is so blatant in their political stance of liberation for everybody (else). But there is really a lot more to it than that. I can’t quite articulate it yet. I think “apolitical” women are not in the movement for very good reasons, and as long as we say “you have to think like us and live like us to join the charmed circle,” we will fail. What I am trying to say is that there are things in the consciousness of “apolitical” women (I find them very political) that are as valid as any political consciousness we think we have. We should figure out why many women don’t want to do action. Maybe there is something wrong with the action or something wrong with why we are doing the action or maybe the analysis of why the action is necessary is not clear enough in our minds.

In other words, feminism should be about making space for women to make meaningful choices. Work or not work, have children or not, live collectively or individually, to get breast implants or not, have polygamous marriages or none at all. Feminism is about ensuring that everyone has equal rights as human beings, regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. It does not, or should not, impose a certain view of what women should be, e.g. politically active, not wearing make up, bra-burning, and angry. Hanisch takes this view because there are bigger fish to fry: patriarchy.

The groups that I have been in have also not gotten into “alternative life-styles” or what it means to be a “liberated” woman. We came early to the conclusion that all alternatives are bad under present conditions. Whether we live with or without a man, communally or in couples or alone, are married or unmarried, live with other women, go for free love, celibacy or lesbianism, or any combination, there are only good and bad things about each bad situation. There is no “more liberated” way; there are only bad alternatives.

This is part of one of the most important theories we are beginning to articulate. We call it “the pro-woman line.” What it says basically is that women are really neat people. The bad things that are said about us as women are either myths (women are stupid), tactics women use to struggle individually (women are bitches), or are actually things that we want to carry into the new society and want men to share too (women are sensitive, emotional). Women as oppressed people act out of necessity (act dumb in the presence of men), not out of choice. Women have developed great shuffling techniques for their own survival (look pretty and giggle to get or keep a job or man) which should be used when necessary until such time as the power of unity can take its place. Women are smart not to struggle alone (as are blacks and workers). It is no worse to be in the home than in the rat race of the job world. They are both bad. Women, like blacks, workers, must stop blaming ourselves for our “failures.”

As defined by Wikipedia, "Patriarchy is a social system in which the role of the male as the primary authority figure is central to social organization, and where fathers hold authority over women, children, and property. It implies the institutions of male rule and privilege, and is dependent on female subordination." Patriarchy is the system that keeps us in our pre-defined roles, because there is no space, no accommodation for difference. To be clear, patriarchy hurts men just as much as it hurts women. There is a poster by Crimethinc., an anarchist art collective, that I love that is based on a poem by Nancy R. Smith, written around the same time as Hanisch's essay.

For every woman who is tired of acting weak when she knows she is strong, there is a man who is tired of appearing strong when he feels vulnerable.

For every woman who is tired of acting dumb, there is a man who is burdened with the constant expectation of "knowing everything."

For every woman who is tired of being called "an emotional female," there is a man who is denied the right to weep and to be gentle.

For every woman who is called unfeminine when she competes, there is a man for whom competition is the only way to prove his masculinity.

For every woman who is tired of being a sex object, there is a man who must worry about his potency.

For every woman who feels "tied down" by her children, there is a man who is denied the full pleasures of shared parenthood.

For every woman who is denied meaningful employment or equal pay, there is a man who must bear full financial responsibility for another human being.

For every woman who was not taught the intricacies of an automobile, there is a man who was not taught the satisfactions of cooking.

For every woman who takes a step toward her own liberation, there is a man who finds the way to freedom has been made a little easier.

By Nancy R. Smith, copyright 1973

Patriarchy hurts us because it reduces our potential as human beings to live fulfilling lives. Feminism is about changing this social system. But it is of no use to anyone to replace patriarchy with matriarchy, that is, a social system where women are the primary authority figures and men don't have power. Really, patriarchy needs to be replaced with equality. So it's the system that needs to be defeated. (Recall the dialog from Scene 3 of Monty Python and the Holy Grail where Dennis the peasant seeks to reject Arthur as his king. Although farcical, Dennis' view is a feminist one.) To sum up, the only way to not be a good feminist is by maintaining status quo social roles or imposing new ones that limit self-determination. This is not done by defining what "real" feminism looks like and staking out territory, but by finding allies and making changes that benefit men and women equally.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Sharing the Joy

About a week ago, the media started cover a patent filed by Amazon. It's a system that allows recipients to exchange gifts before the item is shipped from Amazon. This is genius. It saves on shipping and returns, and fewer white elephants sitting in people's homes. The user can even set up rules for how to "convert" incoming gifts and restrictions on how recipients convert their gifts. (No more books on investment for Uncle Bob!)

Of course, there are the usual reactions of horror that this feature violates the norms of gift-giving. Etiquette expert Anna Post was quoted in The Washington Post, saying:

"This idea totally misses the spirit of gift giving," Post said. "The point of gift giving is to allow someone else to go through that action of buying something for us. Otherwise, giving a gift just becomes another one of the world's transactions."

It seems to me that both the existence of this feature and Post's reaction indicates a problem with gift giving in the current material age. We have become so affluent that gift giving is done much more freely. When times were leaner, such as during the Depression, a gift, no matter how small, meant that someone cared and gave a lot of thought to the act. Spending money on someone was a big deal. These days, people seem to feel like they have to give a gift. If you're going to give something to one aunt, you have to give something to all the aunts. In these kinds of situations, people are far more likely to give a gift that misses the mark. In my husband's orderly WASP family, people make lists and gifts often go back to the store. In my unruly Chinese family, gifts are usually items that were purchased on sale without any thought to the recipient and shameless re-gifting occurs.

I have an idea that might be a solution to Ms. Post's concerns and a good application of the Amazon conversion feature. What if you could give the gift to someone who really wanted or needed it? What if we could combine the conversion feature with a web site like Donors Choose or CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocates for children holiday gift program. With these programs, the recipient makes a wish list or selects a single item. If someone is given that gift and doesn't want it, they have the option for sending it to another person who has wished for it.

Something like this happened on thebloggess's blog this Christmas. She offered $30 gift cards to the first 20 people who were having difficulty coming up with presents for their children. When more than 20 people needed help, her readers came forward with donations for gift cards. Other bloggers gave her a shout out and things snowballed from there. The following was her second-last update to the project, which appeared on Christmas Day.

As of right now (noon Saturday) I have emailed hundreds of donors and over 500 gift cards are scheduled to go out to people who need help. If everything goes as planned (Please, God, let it go as planned) everyone who has asked for help as of this moment will get at least one gift card and many will get several. Some got cash for medicine. Some got money so they could keep the electricity on and buy food for Christmas dinner. Some only asked for help in buying presents for their brothers or sisters so their moms wouldn’t be so worried. Some received help and then got more help than they needed and decided to turn around and become a donor themselves. I wish I could tell you what this has meant to me, but there aren’t words for it. The emails and comments coming in from people who got a Christmas miracle are incredible, but the ones from people so thankful to be able to help are even more moving. Right now we still have a few more donors available and another 20 are standing by in case someone who asked for a donation hasn’t heard anything from their donor by Monday.

That’s one hell of a Christmas miracle, y’all.

(In her final update, she wrote that over 600 gift cards went out and her hands were about to fall off. I can imagine. Good cause, though.)

In the text that I bolded, the recipients kept up the spirit of giving. This is the kind of gift-giving that is hard to find fault with. The whole project has a spirit of gift giving that means something that goes beyond stodgy rules of etiquette. Giving a gift that is more than an fulfilling an obligation and makes a real difference to the recipient is much more satisfying.

I also think charitable part of our obligation as human beings. The Christian church advocates tithing, i.e. giving 10% of one's income to the church. Few people do this, but among the evangelicals there are debates over whether it's meant to be net or gross income. (Render unto God, before or after rendering unto Caesar.) Muslims are encouraged to donate 3% of their income to charity, any charity, not just the mosque. This is a rule of thumb that I have been following for some years and it's been a pleasure to share the joy as my income has grown. This year, I supported Irvine United Congregational Church, the Houston SPCA (Charles Jantzen is my hero), Story Corps, This American Life, NPR, Bonita Canyon School, World Vision, Plan Canada, and the Hamlin Fistula Foundation.