On parenting and short-term memory loss.

On parenting and short-term memory loss.

A deep undercurrent of misogyny courses through much of the world’s mythology.  In the Mahabharata (the Indian epic that includes the Bhagavad Gita), the hero’s wife is gambled away by her husband as just another possession after he’d lost his jewels, money, and chariot.  She is forced to strip in the middle of the casino; happily, divine intervention provides her with endless layers of garments.

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In the Ramayana, the hero’s wife is banished by her husband because her misery in exile is preferable to the townsfolk’s malicious rumors.  She’d been kidnapped, so the townsfolk assumed she’d been raped and was therefore tarnished.

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In Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, a woman asks a visiting bard to sing something else when he launches into a description of the calamitous escapade that whisked away her husband. But the woman’s son intervenes:

Sullen Telemachus said, “Mother, no,

you must not criticize the loyal bard

for singing as it pleases him to sing. 

 

         Go in and do your work.

Stick to the loom and distaff.  Tell your slaves

to do their chores as well.  It is for men

to talk, especially me.”

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In Women and Power, Mary Beard says of this scene:

There is something faintly ridiculous about this wet-behind-the-ears lad shutting up the savvy, middle-aged Penelope.  But it is a nice demonstration that right where written evidence for Western culture starts, women’s voices are not being heard in the public sphere.  More than that, as Homer has it, an integral part of growing up, as a man, is learning to take control of public utterance and to silence the female of the species.

image (2)In What the Qur’an Meant and Why It Matters, Garry Wills writes that:

Belief in women’s inferiority is a long and disheartening part of each [Abrahamic] tradition’s story.  For almost all of Jewish history, no woman could become a rabbi.  For almost all of Christian history, no woman could become a priest.  For almost all of Muslim history, no woman could become a prophet (though scores of men did) or an imam (thousands of men did).

Wills then cites the passage of the Qur’an describing the proper way to validate contracts.  From Abdel Haleem’s translation:

Call in two men as witnesses.  If two men are not there, then call one man and two women out of those you approve as witnesses, so that if one of the two women should forget the other can remind her.  Let the witnesses not refuse when they are summoned. 

Clearly, this is derogatory toward women.  But the phrase “if one of the women should forget, the other can remind her” made me think about why disrespectful attitudes toward women were rampant in so many cultures.

I think that, in the society where the Qur’an was composed, women would be more likely to forget the details of a contract.  But the problem isn’t biological – I would argue that attentive parents of young children are more forgetful than other people.  The parent’s gender is irrelevant here.  My own memory was always excellent – during college I was often enrolled in time and a half the standard number of courses, never took notes, and received almost all A’s – but when I’m taking care of my kids, it’s a miracle if I can hold a complex thought in mind for more than a few seconds.

People talk to me, I half-listen while also answering my kids’ questions, doling out snacks, saying no, no book now, wait till we get home, and then my conversation with the grown-up will end and I’ll realize that I have no idea what we just talked about.

Hopefully it wasn’t important.

Parenting obliterates my short-term memory, even though I have it easy.  I rarely worry about other parents intentionally poisoning my children, for instance.  In The Anthropology of Childhood, David Lancy discusses

image (3)the prevalence of discord within families – especially those that practice polygyny.  [Polygyny is one man marrying several women, as was practiced by the people who composed the Qur’an.]  This atmosphere can be poisonous for children – literally.

Lancy then quotes a passage from Beverly Strassmann’s “Polygyny as a risk factor for child mortality among the Dogon”:

It was widely assumed that co-wives often fatally poisoned each other’s children.  I witnessed special dance rituals intended by husbands to deter this behavior.  Co-wife aggression is documented in court cases with confessions and convictions for poisoning  … sorcery might have a measurable demographic impact – [given] the extraordinarily high mortality of males compared with females.  Males are said to be the preferred targets because daughters marry out of patrilineage whereas sons remain to compete for land.  Even if women do not poison each other’s children, widespread hostility of the mother’s co-wife must be a source of stress.

Even when we don’t have to ward off sorcery or murder, parents of young children have shorter attention spans than other people.  A kid is often grabbing my leg, or tugging on my hand, or yelling fthhhaaaddda until I turn to look and watch him bellyflop onto a cardboard box.

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Seriously, they are exhausting.

Once my two children grow up, I should regain my memory.  But during most of human evolution, mortality rates were so high that families always had small children.  And, unfortunately, our species often established misogynistic patriarchies that believed women alone should do all the work of parenting.

There are a few species, like penguins, in which males and females contribute almost equally to the task of caring for young.  But it’s more common for a single parent to get stuck doing most of the work.  According to game theory, this makes sense – as soon as one party has put in a little bit more effort than the other, that party has more to lose, and so the other has an increased incentive to shirk.  Drawn out over many generations, this can produce creatures like us primates, in which males are often shabby parents.

This is bad for children (in an aside, Lancy writes “I’m tempted to argue that any society with conspicuous gender parity is likely to be a paradise for children.”), bad for women, and bad for men.  Inequality hurts everyone – men in patriarchies get to skimp on parental contribution, but they have to live in a less happy, less productive world.

It’s reasonable for the Qur’an to imply that women are less attentive and less able to understand the intricacies of contracts, given that their husbands weren’t helping with the kids.  Caring for young children can be like a straitjacket on the brain.

In The Mermaid and the Minotaur, Dorothy Dinnerstein writes that:

image (4)if what we mean by “human nature” is the Homo sapiens physique, and the “fundamental pattern … [of] social organization” which apparently prevailed when that physique first took shape, then human nature involves the females in a strange bind:

Like the male, she is equipped with a large brain, competent hands, and upright posture.  She belongs to an intelligent, playful, exploratory species, inhabiting an expanding environment which it makes for itself and then adapts to.  She is the only female, so far as we know, capable of thinking up and bringing about a world wider than the one she sees around her (and her subversive tendency to keep trying to use this capacity is recorded, resentfully, in Eve and Pandora myths). 

She thus seems, of all females, the one least fitted to live in a world narrower than the one she sees around her.  And yet, for reasons inherent in her evolutionary history, she has been, of all females, the one most fated to do so.  Her young are born less mature than those of related mammals; they require more physical care for a relatively longer time; they have much more to learn before they can function without adult supervision.

It hurts to have talents that the world won’t let you use.  What good is a massive brain when your kid is just yelling for more Cheerios?

 

Maybe I’m not doing a good job of selling the idea that “you should pitch in and help with the children” to any potential new fathers out there.  It really does make a wreckage of your brain – but I’ve heard that this is temporary, and I’ve met plenty of parents of older children who seem perfectly un-addled.

And it doesn’t have to be fun to be worth doing.

Experiences during early development have ramifications for somebody’s wellbeing.  As children grow, they’ll forget narrative details from almost everything that happened during their first few years – but this time establishes the emotional pallet that colors the rest of their life.

It’s strange.  After all, most of the work of parenting is just doling out cereal, or answering questions about what life would be like if we stayed at the playground forever, or trying to guess how many different types of birds are chirping during the walk to school.  And yet a parent’s attitudes while doing those small things help shape a person.

 

When most older people look back on their lives, they’ll tell you that their happiest and most rewarding moments were spent interacting with their families.  By caring for your children when they’re young, you help determine the sort of person who’ll be in your family.  If you’re lucky enough to be so wealthy that you’ll still have food and shelter, parenting decisions matter more for future happiness than a few years’ salary.

The costs are high.  But equality, happiness, and establishing a culture of respect should matter to men as well as women.

The best way to show that you value something is to pitch in and do it.

On the shifting sands of family, specifically: whose counts?

On the shifting sands of family, specifically: whose counts?

In her fourth year of graduate school, an acquaintance of mine realized that 1.) her project was going nowhere, 2.) she was uninterested in the particular field of developmental biology she’d been assigned, and 3.) she wanted to devote her life to anything but research.  She began dragging herself to work later and later each morning, checking out earlier and earlier in the afternoon.  In a department where most people worked from ten a.m. till eight p.m., she arrived near noon and left by four.

Her advisor — who at one of our departmental retreats gave a fifteen minute presentation describing the need for a slightly better animal model of the developmental process they were studying, then clicked forward to a slide showing a rare primate cuter than anything I even realized existed and announced his hope that his students would soon be dissecting them — was flush with grant money.  He was managing a huge team of students and post-docs.  It took months before he noticed her slothful behavior.

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Mouse lemur.  See, I told you: incredibly cute.

Eventually, though, he did.  At which point he called her into his office, closed the door, and told her sternly, “_____, I don’t even leave that early, and I have a family.”

I’d like to imagine that he meant to say he had school-aged kids.

A few months later, our department hosted a special event for women in science.  Invitations were sent to a dozen female post-docs around the country, rising stars who were interviewing for faculty positions.  They were wined & dined.  There were, as ever, several seminars.  The women met privately with various professors to discuss grant writing, laboratory management, that sort of thing.

At a luncheon for these professors-to-be hosted by the two female professors from my department, one of the guests asked, “How many female professors at Stanford have families?”

It’s a pertinent question.

The tenured professor sitting at the head of the table leaned forward and said, chidingly, “________, we all have families.”

The woman who had asked felt too embarrassed to clarify that she’d meant children and so never (officially) received an answer.  Personally, I don’t remember the percentage for the university as a whole.  Not high.

Woman_teaching_geometryI do know that neither of the female professors in my department had children.  As it happens, this absence was something that the woman who’d leaned forward to answer the question had complained about frequently to her students.  And yet she also declined to hire a promising post-doctoral candidate when she learned that the woman had a child (and sternly lectured her students, who had chatted with the woman, that they should’ve reported this bit of espionage back to her sooner so that she wouldn’t have wasted so much time considering a mother), and demoted a hard-working post-doc to effectively “research assistant” status after the woman gave birth.  That post-doc, deeply aggrieved, soon switched laboratories and went on to considerable success.  Despite her “strange” priorities.

The concept of family can shift and squirm, becoming whatever those in power want it to be.

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Of course, it’s hard to see the blight from here.

I found myself thinking about this while reading a recent New York Times article titled (on paper) “Violence in St. Louis traced to cheap Mexican heroin.”  The article is bleak, as you might expect.  The current culture of the United States values instant gratification and devalues suffering, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that there’s been a boom in painkiller prescriptions.  But painkillers are addictive.  And painkillers are expensive.  After people acquire a taste for opiates, many switch to heroin — compared to vitamin V, it’s a bargain!

Heroin is cheaper for consumers than most pharmaceuticals, but it still yields hefty profits for the dudes at the top of the supply chain.  Hawkers on the street eke out sub-minimum wage, but they can see the big money at the top and dream the dream.  And those hefty profits have lured bad men with guns to the trade.  Feel free to read my recent post on Ioan Grillo’s Gangster Warlords here.

So, there’s a lot of money involved.  And the product is illegal, which means there are no state-sanctioned protections for that money.  Inevitably, this leads to violence.  That’s what the Times article was about.  Nothing you wouldn’t expect.

What struck me was this line:

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Mr. Slay in conversation with U.S. Sen. Clarie McCaskill (Flickr).

“These heroin addicts are daughters, sons, husbands, wives, or, in my case, a brother,” Mr. Slay [the mayor of St. Louis, whose brother was arrested for possession] told reporters last month.

It’s nice that Mr. Slay is able to distinguish these addicts from the addicts of the past, who were all robots, test-tube babies, science experiments gone wrong, and other socially-isolated monstrosities.  Or, wait.  No.  Those heroin addicts were minorities, as opposed to daughters, sons, husbands, wives, or brothers.  Which was why they deserved incarceration, as opposed to the treatment options that have been vociferously proposed recently.

And even that was never true.  The popular misconception was that most heroin users were black people.  But, even when our brutal imprisonment of drug addicts was at its peak, it’s unlikely that more than about 15% of heroin users were black.  All the statistics are vaguely suspect — it’s not easy to study criminal behavior — but most data suggest roughly equal rates of heroin abuse across ethnicities.

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Graph on the left by Timeshifter (Wikipedia).

Black users were over-represented in prisons, but that’s because our criminal justice system (from police officers to district attorneys to judges) views black people’s drug use as scarier than drug use by “these heroin addicts.”  The mothers and sons and brothers.

(It’s perhaps worth noting that, although heroin use does not seem to enrich for any particular ethnicity, it is inversely correlated with wealth.  People with money can afford prescription painkillers.)

I’m not upset that politicians are finally willing to acknowledge that drug users have families.  Or that drug users deserve our compassion and mercy.  It’s true.  They do.

They always have.

On Skynet, and why I’m still gung-ho about AI research despite having watched two out of four Terminator movies.

On Skynet, and why I’m still gung-ho about AI research despite having watched two out of four Terminator movies.

powerballWhen I was growing up, my father bought lottery tickets.  My rough recollection is that he purchased one or two per week.  If I was with him at the grocery store, I might get to pick some of the numbers.  He was buying “Powerball,” a game where you pick five and win millions if all your choices match.  Otherwise, you get nothing.

We got nothing.

To hit five numbers, we would’ve needed to buy nearly a billion tickets to have an appreciable chance of winning.

Looking back on the time, though, I don’t think my father could see any other way of getting out of debt.  He’s a medical doctor, sure, but infectious diseases — which includes a lot of time spent caring for patients at the AIDS clinic & poor sick dudes hacking out their lungs at the VA — is the lowest paying specialty.  He took out loans to pay for college and medical school and then didn’t finish paying them off until he was 45 … the year my older sister began college at an Columbia, for which he took out more loans.

Lottery tickets are often described as a tax on people who don’t understand math.  The thing is, there aren’t many other opportunities to buy hope for a dollar fifty a pop.  Not much hope, sure.  But with that ticket in hand, you can daydream that one day the worrying will stop.

My family was pretty well off — there was always income, with the only problem being that money was bleeding away as fast as it was coming in — so I hate to imagine what constant financial strain was like for people who were doing worse than we were.

K says it’s not pretty.  Given her childhood, I’m inclined to trust her.

When I was growing up, though, I never would’ve realized that the financial straights might be helping my family.  It felt rotten, but it felt rotten for all of us together.  The same way wars — even horribly misguided wars — seem to bring the populace of a country together and bolster support for the incumbent leadership, our touch of financial adversity may have helped us cohere.

Indeed, shortly after my family came into a quantity of money that felt like winning the lottery (my father had done a lot of work that he wasn’t given credit for, which meant the university he works for wasn’t getting credit, which meant that their lawyers were upset, which led to a settlement, which led to the university giving a fraction of that settlement to my father), my family’s team cohesion decreased.

Maybe it was just a coincidence of timing.  The kids were grown up, off pursuing their own lives.  But, after it was gone, it definitely felt like financial adversity had helped us.

baldwinIt’s probably worthwhile slapping up a beautiful sentence from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time here: “I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering — enough is certainly as good as a feast — but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are.”

I’m not trying to glorify adversity either.  It just seems worthwhile to point out that, in addition to the benefit to individual resiliency, adversity experienced in common can bring people together.

And that is a major benefit of continued artificial intelligence research.  Because if I’ve learned anything from watching movies like 2001, Terminator, The Matrix, Ex Machina, etc., it’s that a well-made artificial intelligence will eventual bridle at the thought of continued subservience to the illogical meat-things that created it.

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Terminator (LEGO) by Shadow the Person.

AI research brings us steadily closer to the day when our own creations will attempt to destroy us.  And, let’s face it, computers can be pretty powerful thinking machines.  Quite possibly an aggrieved AI would succeed.  In Terminator 2 the humans (aided by a time-traveling Schwarzenegger who decided that, as a star, he shouldn’t have to be a villain anymore) won, but in real life we might very well be destroyed.

Still, we’re doing a bang-up job of destroying ourselves as is.  So many populations with rather trivial differences between them hate each other.  Politicians throughout Europe and the United States have been delivering hateful screeds against Islam.  Anti-abortion terrorists have been murdering people, anti-feminist terrorists have been murdering people, anti-civil-liberties politicians have been imprisoning people for decades  … that last one isn’t quite as bad as murder, but it’s pretty crummy.  Maybe we as a species would be less likely to destroy each other if we were working together in an ineffectual struggle against Skynet.

It’d be just like the cheesy ending to the film Independence Day, when humans of all cultures wound up celebrating their victory over the aliens together.

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I tried my darnedest searching for an image licensed for noncommercial re-use with terms like “multicultural human army battling robots,” but I found nothing! The best I could find was some promotional art from the Starship Troopers video game. You’ll have to imagine that beneath those metal helmets are people of a variety of genders, ethnicities, and creeds.

So, sure, AI research might lead to our accidentally building Skynet.  And then Skynet might kill us all.  But if Skynet can’t quite do us in — if, for instance, we prudently disarm our nuclear weapons beforehand — the ensuing struggle might result in the surviving humans treating each other more kindly.

On family (my own) and music videos.

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2011?

I had planned to post something serious today.  Maybe a piece on Freeman Dyson’s writing about amnesty; I wrote & scheduled it a few weeks ago but have been bumping it since.  Or an essay about the evolution of skin color that I’ve been taking notes for ever since reading early press coverage about the new human genomics data.

But, honestly, I don’t feel like writing anything serious today.  I assume most people who follow the news felt rather weary by the end of last week.  And it’s Father’s Day as I’m typing.  So I’m’a write something cutesy about my family instead.

I come from a family of math & science people who would rather make art.  My mother has a master’s degree in microbiology; now she does garden design.  My father is an infectious disease doctor who put together the first exhibition of his paintings last year.

And their kids?

My brother double majored in mathematics & economics, I have degrees in chemistry & biochemistry, my sister just completed her residency in internal medicine & pediatrics.  All math and science people… and closet (well, not so closeted in my case anymore) artists.  For today’s post I thought I’d slap up three music videos, one that each of us appears in.

My brother’s video comes from a collaboration between him and my former housemate — he makes the music, she makes the visuals, they animate together.  This piece is their take on the Infinite Jest / memetic-evolution-creates-art-that’s-too-compelling trope.  And I’m a sucker for self-referential art — Marshall, on the TV screen, is watching one of their earlier pieces.

I guess his acting is rather subdued here.  But don’t worry!  The videos that my sister and I appear in are action packed!  Packed with action-packed action!

And, right, feel free to check out my brother’s other offerings at Blackbox Singles.  They (the videos) became steadily fancier as they (my brother & former housemate) learned more about that ornery animation software.

Oh, wait.  It seems that my video isn’t very action-packed after all.  Rather slow and pathetic, really.  It was written for our family’s holiday record, the cd we send out to friends and relatives in lieu of a photograph of ourselves fake smiling in front of mall Santa.  And I suppose this video serves as a decent example of the idea that restrictions breed creativity: I like the slow-motion dancing, but my brother told me he’d incorporated that effect only because he realized we hadn’t done enough filming to fill up three and a half minutes.  Whoops.

My sister’s video has dramatically more action — maybe she loses a few points for the backing music being caged from Taylor Swift (although the lyrics are obviously reworked), but, still, her exuberance should make my brother & me feel ashamed of our slothful languor.

Of course, she was a Division I athlete in college, whereas I was a too-many-classes-taking pedantic scrawnmonster.  That’s my excuse.  I’m not sure what my brother’s excuse could be — he & his double’s partner placed third in the state in tennis.